Monday, October 6, 2008

Civil Rights Lawyer J.L. Chestnut Jr., PRESENTE

Civil Rights Lawyer J.L. Chestnut Jr., 77

By Joe Holley

Washington Post

October 2, 2008


J.L. Chestnut Jr., 77, the first black lawyer in Selma,

Ala., and an attorney for the Rev. Martin Luther King

Jr. during the city's landmark protest marches of the

early 1960s, died Sept. 30 at St. Vincent's Hospital in Birmingham.


A law partner, state Sen. Hank Sanders of Selma, said

Mr. Chestnut's kidneys began to fail because of an

infection following surgery


Mr. Chestnut, who remained a major figure in efforts to

secure voting rights for black residents of Alabama, was

the local lawyer whom King and other civil rights

leaders depended on to fight harassing injunctions, bail

demonstrators out of jail and serve as an intermediary

between them and city leaders.


Mr. Chestnut was at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7,

1965, which became known as Bloody Sunday after police

beat demonstrators to keep them from beginning a march

to Montgomery, the state capital.


The march was a signal moment in the civil rights

struggle. Captured on national television, the Bloody

Sunday incident spurred widespread revulsion. The Selma

event galvanized congressional support that August to

pass the Voting Rights Act to prohibit racial

discrimination in balloting.


Mr. Chestnut spent the next four decades working to

ensure that voting rights for black Americans translated

into political power and influence, locally and beyond.


He defended black residents in major voting fraud

prosecutions brought by the Justice Department in west

Alabama in the 1980s. More recently, he was the lead

attorney in a class-action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman,

that black farmers filed against the U.S. Agriculture

Department for denying them subsidies and other

assistance because of race.


A federal judge approved a settlement of the case in

2000, with nearly $1 billion in reparations paid to

black farmers so far. Mr. Chestnut also led the appeals

for more than 60,000 farmers who were denied

compensation in the settlement.


"He was just an indomitable advocate for black people,

whether it was getting them to vote, getting them on

juries, desegregating the schools [and] getting black

people to run for office," said Julia Cass, a former

Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who co-wrote Mr.

Chestnut's autobiography, "Black in Selma: The Uncommon

Life of J.L. Chestnut" (1990).


By the 1990s, Mr. Chestnut's firm, Chestnut, Sanders,

Sanders & Pettaway, was the largest black law firm in Alabama.


J.L. Chestnut Jr. was born in Selma on Dec. 16, 1930.

The initials stood for the name of a white banker his

father's family admired. His father co-owned a grocery

store until IRS agents forced him out of business

because of unpaid taxes. His mother was an elementary school teacher.


He was a saxophone player in his youth and was vividly

exposed to the inequalities of how the races lived when

he performed at a whites-only country club in Selma.


His first mentor was a Selma schoolteacher, John F.

Shields, who advised him, "Go get yourself a law degree

and fight the system."


He received his undergraduate degree from Dillard

University in New Orleans in 1953 and enrolled at Howard

University law school. He arrived at Howard just as the

nation's preeminent black lawyers were gathering at the

school to prepare their arguments in Brown v. Board of

Education, the 1954 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court

declared segregated schools unlawful.


Deeply influenced by Thurgood Marshall and other black

civil rights lawyers involved in the case, Mr. Chestnut

considered staying in the North. He ultimately decided

that "the rumblings of change were coming from the

South." He got his law degree in 1958 and headed home to Selma.


When he set up his law practice, he was one of five

black lawyers in Alabama. The local bar association had

one of its members talk to the banks so that he wouldn't

get a loan to set up his practice.


He opened for business anyway, learning valuable

courtroom technique from a black trial lawyer in

Birmingham. "Aggressive acts always leave the opposition

trying to figure out what to do," he later told a

reporter. "I began to get a reputation as a fighter,

someone not afraid of the police and judges."


In his memoir, he admitted to personal flaws during this

period, in particular heavy drinking. He wrote of

turning himself in to the jailer instead of waiting to

be arrested for public drunkenness.


In the mornings, seeing the jail bars, he became

aggressive about his constitutional rights. The jailer

would say, "We didn't arrest you. The door isn't even

locked. Push it," Mr. Chestnut recalled.


Nevertheless, his impact on the region was unmistakable.

In Selma and the surrounding county, he fought to

desegregate Selma schools and to have blacks chosen for juries.


In 2000, he represented the black nationalist Jamil

Abdullah Al-Amin, formerly H. Rap Brown, on charges of

fatally shooting a Fulton County, Ga., sheriff's deputy

and wounding another. Al-Amin was convicted of murder in

2002, a ruling the Georgia Supreme Court upheld in 2004.


In 1985, Mr. Chestnut and Sanders obtained a license

from the Federal Communications Commission and built

Selma's first radio station for black audiences. Mr.

Chestnut had a popular radio call-in show in which he

took calls from listeners. He loved provoking them.


"He would say all kind of outrageous things, but because

he had such a sense of joy when he said them, people

didn't react the way they would if somebody else said

them," Sanders said. "They'd say, 'Aw, that's just J.L. Chestnut.' "


Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Vivian Chestnut

of Selma; six children, Ronnie Chestnut of Birmingham,

Geraldine Chestnut of San Diego and Vivian Roslyn

Chestnut, Terrance Chestnut, Gregory Chestnut and

Kimberly Chestnut, all of Selma; a sister; six

grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.


J.L. Chestnut was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air (WHYY-FM in Philadelphia) by Terry Gross in 1990:


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