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J.L. Chestnut Jr., 1930 - 2008

Lawyer helped in battle for civil rights

October 06, 2008|Joe Holley | Washington Post

J.L. Chestnut Jr., 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. He was 77.

A law partner, state Sen. Hank Sanders of Selma, said Chestnut's kidneys began to fail because of an infection after surgery.

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.

He 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. Broadcast 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.

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. 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 Chestnut's autobiography, "Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut" (1990).

By the 1990s, 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.

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, Chestnut 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 couldn'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."

His effect 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, Chestnut and Sanders, his law partner, obtained a license from the Federal Communications Commission and built Selma's first radio station for black audiences. Chestnut had a popular radio call-in show on 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.

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