Chestnut – Sanders partnership looks back on 30 years

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 12, 2002

It was June 1972 when the idea that was to become the law firm of Chestnut, Sanders and Sanders was born.

J.L. Chestnut recalls that he was attending to some business on Broad Street when he bumped into a young attorney by the name of Hank Sanders.

“He was the third black lawyer to open a practice in Selma. I was the first,” recalls Chestnut. “He was walking to town. He didn’t even own an automobile. What I was driving, you had to stretch to call it an automobile. He mentioned that we ought to start a partnership.

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“I told him I would think about it.”

It was an brash move on the part of the young Sanders. Chestnut was an established attorney with a well-earned reputation for challenging some of the more glaring injustices in a legal system that too often aided in the oppression of black citizens.

Sanders was still wet behind the ears, his only legal experience being a stint with the North Alabama Legal Services office in Huntsville – which, as Chestnut points out, is about as far removed from the reality of practicing law in the Deep South as the Earth is from the moon.

Still, the two men saw something in each other, and an unlikely partnership began to take shape. But there were hurdles to overcome.

Says Chestnut, “People were telling him that I had terrible habits, that I drank too much, that I was a hell-raiser. People were telling me – undoubtedly some of the same people – that I shouldn’t take him on, that I was the one with all the experience and the contacts, that I didn’t need him.

“The only person I asked about it was my wife, Vivian. She thought about it and said it was worth trying.”

This year, Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders, Pettaway, Campbell and Albright, LLC celebrates its 30th anniversary. The firm will mark the occasion with a series of events today and Saturday.

Chestnut’s reputation for raising legal hell remains firmly intact. Sanders continues to break new ground. In addition to his legal contributions to the firm, he also serves as the first black to be elected state senator in Alabama since Reconstruction.

Faya Rose Toure, the other Sanders, has staked out a reputation for community activism. The firm has founded or co-founded such organizations as the National Voting Rights Museum, Alabama New South Coalition, McRae Learning Center, Concerned Alabamians Reforming Education, 21st Century Youth Leadership Project, Black Belt Arts and Cultural Center and others.

Says Chestnut, “We decided at the outset that we wanted this to be a genuine partnership, and not just something where we agreed to split the rent. We wanted to prove that black lawyers could organize a firm, stay together and fight for justice, and be successful.

“And I think we’ve done that.”

One of the firm’s first cases involved a challenge to the at-large system of electing members to the Selma City Council.

“At the time,” Chestnut explains, “the city elected each of its 10 council members at large. Of course, that guaranteed that no black would ever be elected because there were more whites than blacks registered to vote.”

Chestnut’s legal strategy was to argue that the at-large system was unconstitutional on its face and therefore required no supporting evidence.

The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the at-large system was ruled unconstitutional. As a direct result of the case, blacks were elected to the Selma City Council for the first time since Reconstruction.

“We did not make one red penny off all that litigation,” Chestnut points out. “And, in fact, it was quite costly to take it all the way to the Supreme Court. But we had determined from the outset that we would see it through, and we did. And I think our community is better for it.”

The firm also brought suit against the Dallas County School Board over a local statute passed by the Legislature mandating separate schools based on race.

The statute was ruled unconstitutional. But the fact that such a case even had to be argued some 20 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling ordering that schools be integrated “with all deliberate speed” rankles Chestnut even today. He describes the frustration he felt about such abuses, even as a youngster, as nothing short of “rage.”

Says Chestnut, “I was born in this town 71 years ago, and it was a far different place than it is now. From about the 8th grade on, I was filled with rage. My major preoccupation was to get the white police out of black Selma.”

It was not a direct path. The head-strong, music-loving young Chestnut took his saxophone and left Selma for the jazz clubs in New Orleans’ French Quarter, determined not to come back.

He eventually returned in 1959 to became the first black to open a law practice in Selma. But if his attitude had changed in the ensuing years, he quickly discovered that blacks here still faced many of the same obstacles they did when he left.

“When I came back in 1959,” Chestnut recalls, “there were only 75 blacks in the entire county registered to vote. No black had served on a jury in 100 years. There were still black and white water fountains, black and white restrooms. The black and white Selma police were still in black Selma, doing whatever, whenever to whomever and not having to answer to anyone for it.

“The only blacks who held jobs downtown were barbers, janitors and messengers.”

Chestnut set about trying to redress some of those grievances by taking criminal cases and using them to raise civil rights issues.

“For example,” he says, “I would take a murder conviction and try to have it quashed by showing that blacks had been systematically excluded from both grand juries and petit juries for a hundred years.”

It was grassroots legal strategy. Often, a case would have to be appealed again and again before a ruling could be overturned. Then a new case would be taken on and the whole process began anew. It was slow, tedious work, but it was effective – not only here but elsewhere across the South.

Says Chestnut, “Few people understand that as important as all the walking was in the Montgomery bus boycott, in the end it was the Supreme Court and the lawyers who broke the back of segregation in that case.”

Today, Chestnut and his partners continue to tackle precedent-setting cases. One of the most satisfying for Chestnut, from a personal point of view, is a class-action suit accusing the U.S. Department of Agriculture of systematic discrimination against black farmers.

“We represent more than 20,000 black farmers all over the United States,” Chestnut says. “These are people who were on food stamps. They had lost their land. The government had foreclosed on their land.”

The case continues to wind its way through the legal system, but many longstanding wrongs have already been redressed. Chestnut points out that the firm’s legal fees come not from farmers in the case, but from fees assessed against the government by the court.

“Not one farmer has paid one dime,” he emphasizes. “In fact, this firm has borrowed more than $2 million to finance the case. All that the government has paid to this point is not even enough to pay off our debts.”

As he reflects back on 30 years of achievements, Chestnut cites the firm’s role in helping to initiate such organizations as the National Voting Rights Museum and others as further evidence of its community involvement. “We are more proud in some ways of those endeavors than we are of some of the cases we’ve been involved in,” he says.

The firm has also nurtured a formidable array of talent over the years, including Circuit Court Judge Marvin Wiggins, state Sen. Michael Figures and attorney Robert Turner of Marion.

“This firm has made all kinds of contributions,” Chestnut says with obvious pride. “It’s been a good life. It’s been a worthwhile life.”