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Southern Discomfort : BLACK IN SELMA The Uncommon Life of J. L. Chestnut Jr. by J. L. Chestnut Jr. and Julia Cass (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $22.95; 397 pp.)

September 02, 1990|Charles Johnson | Johnson is author of "Middle Passage" and "Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970."

"Black in Selma," the autobiography of Selma's first black lawyer, J. L. Chestnut Jr., unfolds with the richness of character that one expects, say, in a novel, or a great-uncle's story delivered late at night on a Southern porch after the dishes have been put away and a few jugs of whiskey uncorked.

Alabama's journey from Jim Crow to integration is lensed through Chestnut's colorful personality--early in his life he played jazz and worked as a disc jockey in Washington--and his outspoken views on race relations. Often I wondered if he was telling the truth, specifically about his teen-age adventures as a wily, politically aware gambler outwitting both black adults and the police on Selma's black Drag, but eventually skepticism gave way to enchantment: Chestnut is a born raconteur, a kind of Alabama griot with Ralph Ellison's flair for teasing Southern history into entertainment and a trenchant analysis of how power distorts both the oppressor and the disenfranchised.

His memoir of building a political movement in Selma is, therefore, less about famous civil-rights figureheads like Adam Clayton Powell, M. L. King, and Stokely Carmichael (though the author has his say about all of them) than the "grass-roots folks" who lived in Selma before the era of freedom riders, and remained there, toiling for social change, after the national leaders and media left.

Most of all, "Black in Selma" is Chestnut's personal odyssey from "the tense and dangerous reality of being a black lawyer" condemned to "losing at the trial-court level in any case involving race" in 1959 to his building Alabama's largest black law firm by the 1980s.

Born in Selma in 1930, Chestnut grew to adolescence in a world of shotgun shacks and black bootleg joints, where "The significance of race wasn't something you suddenly discovered. It wasn't even something you had to be told. It was . . . something almost instinctual" and, for him, appeared most vividly in the form of white police brutality in the black community and in the impotence of Depression-era black leaders to stop it.

"I saw the hard cold truth of power in Selma," he says. "The white community picked the black communities' leaders . . . for little crumbs of power, black preachers and other leaders could be counted on 'to keep the natives in line'--to cool off potential uprisings and to preach that blacks should clean up their own back yards rather than challenge the system."

His first mentor was a schoolteacher, John F. Shields, "a loner and an outsider" whom Chestnut describes as "remarkable for his place and time" because he preached in the 1940s that "Individual progress is a dead end. . . . The whole race had to get together to overthrow the system." It was Shields who advised him, "Go get yourself a law degree and fight the system. Evil damn system."

Chestnut did just that. After finishing at Howard Law School, he returned to Selma in 1958, defending African-Americans in cases--"criminal ones with a racial angle"--memorable for what they reveal about social life in the Deep South: There is Doc Jones, a white voodoo doctor who abducts a young black girl in order to "cure" her and is beaten by her brother; and a man named Johnson, a black chauffeur who regularly puts his drunken employer to bed a la Bigger Thomas, then sleeps with the man's wife. Chestnut and his colleagues spend a tense night spiriting Johnson from Salem's city jail before the Klan can get their hands on him.

As might be expected, Chestnut's lonely battle in Selma often led to depression, especially in the early 1960s when he briefly concluded that "White power was invincible," and sank so low into alcoholism that he once asked the police to take him to jail rather than to the home of his father, whom he could not face. He writes: "When you've really been drunk and wake up, you can't remember the night before. Sometimes I'd wake up, see the bars, and start raising hell about my constitutional rights. The jailor would respond, 'We didn't arrest you. The door isn't even locked. Push it.' I'd be so embarrassed."

Yet he found strength, he says, in the dogged persistence of other black attorneys, one of them the remarkable Peter Hall, an aggressive, arrogant man whom Chestnut describes as believing "the whole human race was beneath him, a bunch of selfish, lazy connivers. He had no tolerance at all for human feelings. . . . Though the white judges and lawyers treated him almost as if he were white, he wasn't that, or black either, but a third race of which he was the only member." It was from Hall's defense of William Earl Fikes, a black accused of rape, that Chestnut learned his basic approach to law: "I don't know if Fikes is guilty," he reports Hall saying, "but it's damned sure the system is. I intend to try the system while the circuit solicitor is trying Fikes."

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