Joseph Lenoir Chambers

Lenoir Chambers (1891–1970)

Lenoir Chambers, newspaper editor and author, is best known for his opposition to the South's Massive Resistance to racial integration of the public schools, a position he maintained from early in 1954 to 1959. During his life and his career, he sought to educate readers about perceived injustices toward African Americans and workers throughout the South, and urged fairer treatment of them. When Virginia's political leaders closed the state's public schools in 1958 to avoid federally mandated school integration, Chambers wrote a series of articles in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot that opposed the closings. His essays earned him a Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Editorial Writing in 1960. MORE...

 

Joseph Lenoir Chambers Jr. was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, to Joseph Lenoir Chambers Sr. and Grace Singleton Dewey Chambers. He received his early education in Charlotte's public schools and Woodberry Forest (preparatory) School in Virginia. While attending the University of North Carolina, he excelled at academics, played varsity sports, and edited the campus newspaper. Following his graduation in 1914, he taught at Woodberry Forest for two years, then enrolled in Columbia University's School of Journalism. During World War I (1914–1918), he served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army and briefly commanded a company in combat in France. At war's end Chambers returned to the University of North Carolina to direct its news bureau.

Soon after joining the Greensboro Daily News in 1921, he was made its associate editor and worked closely with Earle Godbey, the independent-minded paper's widely respected editor. In 1928 Chambers married the newspaper's society editor, Roberta Burwell Strudwick, who had a son, Robert Strudwick Glenn, from a previous marriage. The couple's daughter, Elisabeth Lacy, was born nine years later.

In 1929 Chambers became the associate editor of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, where he worked closely with its distinguished editor, Louis Isaac Jaffé, who had just become Virginia's first Pulitzer Prize-winner for his antilynching advocacy. In 1944 Chambers became editor of Norfolk 's afternoon newspaper, the Ledger-Dispatch. When Jaffé—by this time a close friend and colleague—died in 1950, Chambers became editor of the Pilot. This proved a difficult move for Chambers because he always thought of the editor's office as Jaffé's; Chambers often joked he knew Jaffé better than he knew his own wife.

Chambers, whom friends described as "courtly," enjoyed an impeccable reputation as a "Son of the South" and was not a racial activist. Nevertheless he did become one of a small group of white southern editors who urged compliance with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the Supreme Court of the United States 1954 landmark desegregation mandate. For five years after the decision, he conducted an unrelenting editorial campaign opposing the Massive Resistance directed by the political machine led by Harry F. Byrd Sr., Virginia's powerful senior senator. Chambers's editorials helped prepare the public for eventual desegregation and peaceful integration of Virginia schools, which was finally achieved only after the U.S. Supreme Court's 1968 ruling in Green et al. v. County School Board of New Kent County et al.

Chambers's journalistic advocacy reached a high point in the fall of 1958 and winter of 1959, after Governor James Lindsay Almond Jr. closed Norfolk's white secondary schools. The elderly editor demanded their reopening. Chambers provided leadership for pro-school forces and, early in 1959, state and federal courts reopened the city's schools. That same year, Chambers's critically acclaimed two-volume biography of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson was published, and in 1960 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Editorial Writing for his school advocacy campaign.

After retiring from the Pilot in 1961, Chambers continued to write (his Salt Water and Printer's Ink was published in 1967) and to be involved in matters of civic and historical concern. From 1966 to 1969, he served on an advisory committee to establish the New Market Battlefield Historical Park and was active with the Virginia Historical Society. Chambers died in 1970.

Time Line

  • December 26, 1891 - Joseph Lenoir Chambers Jr. is born in Charlotte, North Carolina.
  • 1921 - Lenoir Chambers joins the Greensboro Daily News, where he soon becomes associate editor.
  • 1928 - Lenoir Chambers marries Roberta Burwell Strudwick, society editor of the Greensboro Daily News.
  • 1929 - Lenoir Chambers becomes the associate editor of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot.
  • 1944 - Lenoir Chambers becomes editor of the Ledger-Dispatch, Norfolk's afternoon paper.
  • March 12, 1950 - Louis I. Jaffé dies after suffering a heart attack and Lenoir Chambers, his close friend and colleague, succeeds him as editor of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot.
  • September 14, 1958 to 1959 - Lenoir Chambers campaigns vigorously against Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr.'s decision to close the schools of Norfolk to prevent integration.
  • 1960 - Lenoir Chambers wins the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Editorial Writing for his 1959 campaign against Massive Resistance.
  • 1966 to 1969 - Lenoir Chambers serves on the advisory committee to establish the New Market Battlefield Historical Park.
  • January 10, 1970 - Lenoir Chambers dies of a stroke in Norfolk.
Further Reading
Leidholdt, Alexander S. Standing Before the Shouting Mob: Lenoir Chambers and Virginia's Massive Resistance to Public-School Integration. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1997.
Leidholdt, Alexander S. "Virginius Dabney and Lenoir Chambers: Two Southern Liberal Newspaper Editors Face Virginia's Massive Resistance to Public School Integration." American Journalism 15, no. 4 (1998): 35-68.
Pace, David. "Lenoir Chambers Opposes Massive Resistance: An Editor Against Virginia's Democratic Organization, 1955–1959." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 82, no. 4 (1974): 415-429.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Leidholdt, A. S. Lenoir Chambers (1891–1970). (2014, June 15). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Chambers_Joseph_Lenoir_Jr_1891-1970.

  • MLA Citation:

    Leidholdt, Alexander S. "Lenoir Chambers (1891–1970)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 15 Jun. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: February 8, 2008 | Last modified: June 15, 2014


Contributed by Alexander S. Leidholdt, professor, James Madison University.