Civil Rights Lawyer J.L. Chestnut Jr., 77
By Joe Holley
October 2, 2008
J.L. Chestnut Jr., 77, the first black lawyer in
Jr. during the city's landmark protest marches of the
early 1960s, died Sept. 30 at St. Vincent's Hospital in
A law partner, state Sen. Hank Sanders of
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
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
1965, which became known as Bloody Sunday after police
beat demonstrators to keep them from beginning a march
The march was a signal moment in the civil rights
struggle. Captured on national television, the Bloody
Sunday incident spurred widespread revulsion. The
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
attorney in a class-action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman,
that black farmers filed against the
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
Chestnut's autobiography, "Black in
Life of J.L. Chestnut" (1990).
By the 1990s, Mr. Chestnut's firm, Chestnut, Sanders,
Sanders & Pettaway, was the largest black law firm in
J.L. Chestnut Jr. was born in
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
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
When he set up his law practice, he was one of five
black lawyers in
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
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 2000, he represented the black nationalist Jamil
Abdullah Al-Amin, formerly H. Rap Brown, on charges of
fatally shooting a
and wounding another. Al-Amin was convicted of murder in
2002, a ruling the
In 1985, Mr. Chestnut and Sanders obtained a license
from the Federal Communications Commission and built
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
Geraldine Chestnut of
Chestnut, Terrance Chestnut, Gregory Chestnut and
Kimberly Chestnut, all of
grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
J.L. Chestnut was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air (WHYY-FM in