Described by his peers as humble yet brilliant, Stein — a renowned civil rights attorney based in Chapel Hill — has dedicated himself to the past and present civil rights movement.
He is currently suing the North Carolina General Assembly for a 2013 law targeted at election reform, which strips many protective measures implemented in the ‘60s and ‘70s — namely by restricting early registration and voting measures, limiting the use of the absentee ballots and eliminating out-of-precinct voting.
Stein said repealing these measures, originally adopted to bring blacks to the voting booths, disproportionately affects the black community in a move designed to collapse the electorate into primarily Republican-friendly voters.
“There has been a very, very strong effort — particularly by conservatives, not just in North Carolina but around the country — to minimize and complicate voter turnout so much so that they have come up with all kinds of schemes to make sure the vote is suppressed,” said Isaac Unah, associate professor of political science at UNC.
The struggle for voting rights is just one of many areas in which attorneys like Stein are crucial, Unah said. Other areas critical to the civil rights movement are confronting the implicit bias in law enforcement implementation, the re-segregation of N.C. public schools and recent anti-immigrant legislation, he said.
“You need dedicated individuals like Adam Stein who make sure the proper questions are asked of state legislatures, in order to ensure that citizens are being protected,” he said.
Stein’s current legal battle is one case in his extensive history of civil rights cases — including several argued before the U.S. Supreme Court — since he co-founded the first integrated law firm in the southeast, Ferguson Stein Chambers Gresham & Sumter.
“It’s hard to appreciate now — more than 50 years later — how unusual it was for a white lawyer to go work for a black lawyer,” said Richard Rosen, a UNC law professor and friend of Stein. “They were all over the state, suing school districts, employers, companies, trucking companies, mills — essentially winning battles on behalf of the African-American citizens in the state.”
Stein joined the firm in 1969, shortly after graduating from the George Washington University School of Law. A Washington D.C. native, he said his upbringing had much to do with his decision to become a civil rights attorney.
“You couldn’t avoid civil rights and race issues in D.C. because D.C. was very much a Southern city,” Stein said. “Most public accommodations were segregated, movie theaters were segregated — and my family was opposed to that.”
As he recounted in a talk before the Carol Woods Retirement Community in May, “I grew up in a rigidly segregated community in a family that thought segregation was evil.”
The examples set by his father, a New-Dealer under the Roosevelt administration, and family friends, many of whom were civil rights activists, led him to pursue civil rights law and later relocate to North Carolina.
“I didn’t know where Charlotte was. I had to look it up on a map,” he said. “There was some concern about going South and doing civil rights work — I found out later that because I was married and had kids, I was sent to North Carolina rather than Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana, where things were hotter in terms of what was going on in the civil rights world.”
Frank Baumgartner, UNC political science professor, said Stein’s civil rights work on behalf of the firm was actually quite dangerous.
“They established this law firm together that did a lot of landmark work in North Carolina at the early stages of the civil rights movement, including integrating the schools,” he said. “There were death threats — it was almost revolutionary to integrate the schools, so he was very, very unpopular and, as any attorney who works in that field, when you’re trying to defend the rights of people who themselves are unpopular, you become the lightning rod for a lot of people’s anger.”
Despite his many accomplishments and acclaim in the field, Baumgartner said Stein has remained a dedicated public servant, never succumbing to ego.
“He’s really a wonderful person. Very generous to other people, very quiet, very self-assured,” he said. “He’s a real icon for civil rights attorneys throughout the country.”