J.L. Chestnut: A life of advocacy, study

Published 5:56 pm Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Selma’s first black attorney, J.L. Chestnut, died Tuesday morning at a Birmingham hospital.

Relatives said Chestnut, 77, had been sick with an infection and kidney problems. He had been hospitalized off and on during the last year.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

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Chestnut, known to many of his friends as “Chess” was born a couple of weeks before Christmas in his grandparents’ house in east Selma. He lived on Tremont Street in Selma until he was 7 years old.

When he was in high school, Chestnut developed a love for jazz. He played the saxophone. In his book, “Black in Selma,” which he co-authored with Julia Cass, Chestnut talked about Edwin Moss, the older of his best friend, James, coming back from the war, picking up a group of young men from the street and organizing a band, the Masters of Rhythm.

Chestnut’s friend, Kathryn Tucker Windham, recalled his fondness of jazz. In a letter written to Windham, Chestnut talked of a conversation he once had with Thurgood Marshall, who argued the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case in the 1950s and eventually became an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Chestnut wrote to Windham that Marshall told Chestnut that playing saxophone and practicing law didn’t match. “But I couldn’t play saxophone, so it didn’t matter,” Windham read.

He was talented in many ways, according to Windham. He was musical, articulate, smart, and a wordsmith. She said she told Chestnut once that she was envious of him because of his many talents.

“He wrote so well,” Windham said. “He was one of the best story tellers I know.”

He left Selma briefly for his education. In 1948, Chestnut went to Talladega College in north Alabama, where he discovered he was another minority — a young southern black man among, what Chestnut described as “bright, well-educated, light-skinned blacks whose fathers were doctors, lawyers or pastors of large prominent churches in Chicago, New York, Detroit, Los Angeles.”

That year was the same that Southern Democrats formed the Dixicrats at the behest of Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina after walking out of the Democratic National Convention on the heels of Harry Truman’s nomination.

Shortly after, the newly formed States Rights Party would select Thurmond as its standard bearer and Gov. Fielding Wright of Mississippi as its vice presidential nominee in a meeting in Birmingham. Many historians of the civil rights era determine this as the beginning of massive resistance to desegregation.

Cass, who came to Alabama nearly 40 years after that meeting to cover voting rights for the Philadelphia Inquirer, saw in Chestnut a student of the power struggle that had existed at his birth and came to the forefront after World War II.

Chestnut left Alabama after graduating from Talladega and went to Howard Law School as Marshall and other attorneys for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund began working on arguments for the U.S. Supreme Court in the Brown vs. Board of Education lawsuit, which would eventually see the end of a dual public education system in the nation.

Howard brought in legal minds from all over the country to debate the issues of the case. It was a heady time for Chestnut and other students at the law school, he wrote.

“You couldn’t keep me and the other law students away. These were the black lawyers — Thurgood Marshall, Wiley Branton, Herbert Reed, James Naibreth, Robert Carter. We’d read about them in Ebony and Jet and, lo and behold, here we were in the same room with them.”

Chestnut said he had dreamed of living in Harlem, which had reached a political cresendo with the emergence of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam and black power brokers like Adam Clayton Powell Jr. for whom Chestnut had written a few speeches while a student at law school.

But a rape case in Selma would bring him home. When Chestnut passed the bar exam in 1958, he and three other classmates brought the total of black attorneys in the state to nine.

“I have to say he’s the best trial lawyer I ever saw; I ever went up against,” said Dallas County District Attorney Michael Jackson. “He was a legend around here. I enjoyed watching him.”

Chestnut established his practice. He worked with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund throughout the Black Belt with other attorneys in the 1960s. His practice settled down and he began handling wills, deeds and divorces.

Then came the push for voter registration and the struggle and Bloody Sunday.

Chestnut wrote that he stood on a flatbed truck at the far end of the bridge that day, waiting on marchers — John Lewis, Hosea Williams, Albert turner, Robert Mants, Amelia Boynton and Marie Foster — and saw the troopers and the posse and the media.

He was on a telephone with New York with the NAACP Defense Fund: “The troopers rushed forward in a flying wedge. I saw the column of marchers bend to the charge, then topple in sudden clusters. Some lay on the ground, moaning. Others ran, chased by the posse. More tear gas, galloping horses, flying nightsticks, screaming women and children, shrieking white spectators…Through the haze of tear gas, I saw a posse man raise his club and smash it down on a woman’s head as if he were splitting a watermelon.”

That changed his life, Cass said.

In the decades that followed, Chestnut would, as friends said, become a friend to the helpless, black and white. He represented all of them.

He brought a couple of young attorneys, Hank Sanders and his wife Faya Rose Toure, both Harvard-educated, to Selma and his law practice.

His legal work included defending blacks in major voter fraud prosecutions brought by the Justice Department in west Alabama in the 1980s. He joined other black leaders in a meeting with then-Attorney General Edwin Meese in 1985 to complain about the department’s handling of civil rights issues.

Later he was a lead attorney in a class-action lawsuit that thousands of black farmers filed against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for regularly denying subsidies and other assistance to them because of their race.

A federal judge approved a settlement of the case in 2000 and Chestnut led the appeals for thousands of farmers who were denied compensation in the federal settlement.

The case re-opened recently. Cass said Chestnut look forward to working on it again.

But he became ill last week. He was airlifted to Birmingham.

“He’d get better and come back to work, then he’d end up sick again,” Sanders said Tuesday.

Chestnut awoke from a coma on Sunday and “when I touched him, he opened his eyes and tried to smile … now he’s gone,” Sanders said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.