James E. Ferguson II, who helped Julius Chambers launch the first integrated law firm in North Carolina in the 1960s, continues his battle for justice today as leader of the Charlotte firm now known as Ferguson Chambers & Sumter.
“I just want to feel that I’ve done all I can do to bring about equality – for everybody,” Ferguson said. “That’s what life is about – trying to create the society we think we want.”
Ferguson was honored with The Charlotte Post Foundation’s Luminary – Lifetime Achievement award in 2016.
Gerald Johnson, publisher of The Charlotte Post Publishing Company and president of The Charlotte Post Foundation, lauded Ferguson as an advocate for those whose rights have been denied.
“He has an outstanding record of service to this community and we are thrilled to recognize him,” Johnson said.
Known to friends as “Fergie,” Ferguson said he realized he wanted to practice law when he and fellow high school seniors began working for change in segregated Asheville in1960. For advice, they consulted the city’s two African-American lawyers. The attorneys promised to help whenever needed.
“It hit me that that was a wonderful position to be in,” Ferguson said. “I knew I wanted to be in a position to bring about community change.”
Ferguson took on high profile civil rights cases in the 1970s, including the Charlotte 3 and Wilmington 10. The latter case lasted 40-plus years, with former Gov. Beverly Perdue granting a pardon of innocence for all 10 as her last act in office.
“Never give up and never take things personally” is what Mel Watt said he learned in his 22 years of association with Ferguson. Now director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency in Washington, Watt left Ferguson’s firm in 1993 when he was elected to Congress.
“Practicing civil rights is just hard and difficult,” Watt said. “Fergie has managed to keep his freshness and his commitment going despite the trials and tribulations.”
E.M. “Butch” Rosen, a long-time friend, pointed out that cases such as the Wilmington 10 carried with them hostile judges, hostile police, and a hostile national administration. Yet Ferguson was able to handle them in a manner that inspired change, said Rosen, who retired in 2013 as executive director of the Foundation for Shalom Park.
Ferguson joined other American attorneys who journeyed to South Africa during the height of apartheid in the 1980s to help lawyers there develop their skills, Rosen remembered. “He believed the law and the development of good lawyers was capable of grappling with that extremely oppressive regime,” Rosen said.
Frank Emory, a partner at Hunton & Williams in Charlotte, was a member of Ferguson’s firm in the 1980s and remembered him as a smart and strategic thinker. “And underrated might be an understatement,” he added.
He praised Ferguson’s continued focus on how to make education work for the entire community.
“I know Fergie is still passionate about that,” Emory said, “and this is at a time when a lot of folks have grown weary of wrestling with how we ensure the children of those who aren’t well-off also get a good public education.”
Ferguson often bucked the tide. “Fergie would take on the unpopular cause with a zeal that is almost unnatural.” Emory said. “I think of his courage in every sense of the word.”
Courage is a matter of perspective to Ferguson.
“You look at a situation, you see what needs to be done and then you do it,” he said. “You never give a lot of thought to the risk. If you spend your time weighing the risk, you never get much done.”
Geraldine Sumter counts (more than) 35 years with Ferguson’s firm and has been a partner for (over) three decades. Listing his traits, she named compassion, zeal, tenacity and sympathy. Then she singled out optimism.
No matter how hopeless a case, she said, Ferguson can find something favorable to his client. And when the law is the most discouraging aspect, she said, he tries to change the law.
“Fergie honestly believes there’s a reservoir of good will in human kind,” Sumter said. “He strives to find that and he strives to help other people find it.”
A society that treats everybody equal is Ferguson’s stated goal. “We have to have the courage of our convictions.” Ferguson said. “That’s how we get there.”
Until next week!
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Information taken from:
The Charlotte Post
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass