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NAACP Legal Defense Fund to champion 'new underclass'

''I feel that our civil-rights gains are threatened by the Reagan administration, by high unemployment, by threats to our housing and to our health,'' says Julius Levonne Chambers.

Mr. Chambers says he committed his life to becoming a lawyer and ending racial segregation and discrimination 36 years ago when he was 12 and living in Mount Gilead, N.C. he says.

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Today he is the new director-counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF), the nation's largest and most successful civil rights law organization. He succeeds Jack Greenberg, who took office in 1961.

Chambers says his commitment to fighting for civil rights came as the result of an incident during his childhood.

''My father (who owned his own garage and service station) could not get a lawyer to take his case in those days,'' he says. ''A white man owed him more than $2,000 for fixing his tractor-trailer truck, but refused to pay. That was too much money for a black man to ask from a white man. No lawyer would represent my father in court.''

Chambers and Mr. Greenberg see a ''growing need for LDF,'' they said in a Monitor interview.

During the transition, the two men have set key priorities for LDF - to reassess the status of civil rights in the United States and to get firsthand input from the public on what lay people see as key issues in civil rights today.

The LDF will take a long look at ''the new underclass,'' people deprived of quality education, good housing, and basic health needs ''because they are low-income residents of inner-city ghetto communities,'' says Chambers.

Greenberg foresees a new LDF thrust in two areas - development of a new program to rehabilitate ''the poorest of black communities,'' and resistance to efforts to cut affirmative action, school integration, and voting rights in behalf of blacks and other minorities.

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Chambers and Greenberg visited Boston recently to help the New England Committee of LDF celebrate the 45th anniversary of the national organization and to explain the thrust of the fund under new leadership.

Chambers moved from Charlotte, N.C., to New York after being elected director-counsel of LDF on June 11. He is the fund's third chief counsel. When LDF was founded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1939, its first director was Thurgood Marshall, now a justice on the US Supreme Court and the first black appointed to the nation's highest tribunal.

The new director's most pressing task will be to help resolve a legal dispute between the LDF and the NAACP over the use of NAACP as part of the LDF's official name. The LDF has appealed a federal court order to drop NAACP from its name within a year.

''I have made overtures to the NAACP to resolve the conflict,'' says Chambers. ''The problems we face today demand the time of both organizations. We can make more progress working together than we can fighting one another. LDF still works with many NAACP branches. I think we'll have something worked out shortly.''

Greenberg, now a law professor at the Columbia University Law School in New York, fondly recalls his 35 years with LDF, 23 of them as director counsel.

He participated in many historic civil rights cases that have integrated schools, police forces, fire departments, and other areas of American life. Under his leadership the fund established an internship program which gives experience to young lawyers. It also operates a scholarship program for law students.

He has suffered harsh criticism, too. During the 1983-84 school year, black students at the Harvard Law School boycotted a civil rights course that he and Chambers taught in a campaign to get the school to hire more black faculty.

''I would do it all over again,'' Greenberg says as he looks back on his career that has brought him honors from black and white universities. ''I have always done what I cared about. Without a doubt this nation is a better place to live because of LDF.''

Chamber's selection to head the LDF ''is a great moment in my life,'' says Greenberg. ''Our first intern has become the first of our movement's 'youth corps' to take command here. I'm proud of Julius.'' Chambers was the first law school graduate hired as an LDF intern in 1963-64.

Chambers, who filed the lawsuit that integrated schools of Charlotte and Mecklenberg County sees a better Charlotte today than ''those dark days'' when he began to practice law there 20 years ago, he says.

''Yes, my law offices were burned down, and I was threatened,'' Chambers says. ''Yet, I'm proud of the progress Charlotte has made as a desegregated community. A black mayor (Harvey Gantt) was elected with support from the white community. The city practices affirmative action without a court order. Schools are integrated, and our citizens support the schools. Neighborhoods are integrated. Race relations are progressive.''

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