White House

An Obama official’s final, quiet act: Renaming NC roads for 2 civil rights icons

Civil right attorney Julius Chambers discussing a 1960s lawsuit to force the Shrine Bowl to allow blacks to play, on Nov. 28, 2012. Chambers passed away in August 2013.
Civil right attorney Julius Chambers discussing a 1960s lawsuit to force the Shrine Bowl to allow blacks to play, on Nov. 28, 2012. Chambers passed away in August 2013. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Anthony Foxx had one last, quiet but important mission before he left the Obama administration last week: setting in motion what’s needed to rename sections of North Carolina highways to honor two of the state’s civil rights icons.

The outgoing transportation secretary, and former mayor of Charlotte, signed proclamations last week calling on the North Carolina Department of Transportation to name a yet-to-be determined section of interstate in Mecklenburg County the “Julius Chambers Memorial Highway” and a portion of I-85 in Durham County the “John Hope Franklin Memorial Highway.”

“These kind of recognitions are rare, and they probably should be,” Foxx told McClatchy on Monday. “But they are important symbolic statements about the history of the state and the various personalities who’ve animated the state’s history.

“Frankly, there are not a ton of examples of African-Americans who have been recognized, and these two are two of the very best who graced us with their presence in North Carolina.”

The renaming isn’t complete yet, but it’s close and is almost certain to happen.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, endorsed Foxx’s action, telling McClatchy in a statement that “John Hope Franklin and Julius Chambers were men of great vision and purpose who gave so much to North Carolina, and this would be a fitting way for our state to honor them.”

Chambers was an attorney who had a major role in school desegregation. Foxx praised him for advancing “the rights of minorities and low-income people through his tireless advocacy in the forms of litigation, scholarly research, and grass-roots activism and enhanced racial equality throughout the nation and from his home state of North Carolina.”

He hailed Franklin, a renowned academic and historian, for elevating “the cause of civil rights and the study of black history in the United States” and weaving “into the fabric of American history enough of the presence of blacks so that the story of the United States could be told adequately and fairly.”

Foxx signed the proclamations last week. He left office at noon Friday.

The Transportation Department made no formal announcement, as employees were busily winding down from President Barack Obama’s administration in the closing days in preparation for Donald Trump’s swearing-in.

John Whittington Franklin, Franklin’s son, didn’t find out about the honor until Foxx sent him a text message Saturday saying, “I released the following resolution yesterday calling on North Carolina to rename a section of interstate for your Dad.”

“It was quite a surprise,” said Franklin, a senior manager in the office of external affairs at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington. “I told him I was very pleased and I thanked him.”

Derrick Chambers said he’d learned about the proclamations on Thursday, Foxx’s last full day as transportation secretary.

“That’s just a great honor,” said Chambers, a Charlotte resident. “I feel it’s long overdue for someone who made history. I look back at all the work that my father did in my lifetime and I’m proud that he is not forgotten.”

Chambers, who died in 2013 at the age of 76, quickly became an important figure in the national civil rights struggle when he opened Chambers, Stein, Ferguson & Atkins in Charlotte 1965, the first integrated law firm in North Carolina.

He took on a number of cases that challenged discrimination in education, employment and government, including Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, a 1971 Supreme Court decision that paved the way for federal courts to use busing as a way to desegregate schools.

Chambers, who served as the NAACP legal defense fund’s director-counsel from 1984 to 1993, paid a price for his civil rights activities: His car was dynamited and his house was firebombed in 1965. His Charlotte office was torched in 1971.

Franklin, who died in 2009 at the age of 94, was a renowned African-American history scholar. In 1947, he authored “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans,” which is regarded as a seminal work on African-American history.

He served as legal researcher for the NAACP legal defense fund’s work on Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark Supreme Court case that led to desegregation of schools nationwide.

Franklin taught at a number of institutions, including North Carolina Central University and Duke University, where he was a professor of history and a legal history professor at its law school. He was the first African-American to head the American Historical Association.

Then-President Bill Clinton awarded Franklin the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995. Two years later, Clinton tapped Franklin to lead the President’s Initiative on Race, a panel that was created to foster a national dialogue on the sensitive subject of race relations.

Foxx’s actions don’t mean that Chambers and Franklin highway signs will go up soon. Applications must filled with NCDOT requesting the namings, said Robert Broome, a department spokesman.

The requesting parties must also coordinate with local governing bodies, which have to unanimously approve resolutions for road namings. If that happens, the requests are forwarded to a state Board of Transportation committee for its review and recommendations.

If approved, the requests would go before the full NCDOT Transportation Board for its final OK. The board typically considers about a dozen applications per year to name roads, bridges or ferries, Broome said.

Foxx sought to jump-start the process last week by speaking with Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts and Durham Mayor Bill Bell, enlisting their support for the namings.

Foxx’s proclamation didn’t specify which stretch of highway in Mecklenburg County should bear Chambers’ name, largely because many of the roads have already been designated in honor of someone.

Gregg Watkins, a Roberts spokesman, sited I-77 as a possibility.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas