Remembering J.L. Chestnut

Published 2:42 pm Wednesday, October 1, 2008

“I see my own life as helping to realize the dream in my world in Alabama. Though I never imagined I’d spend my whole life in little Selma, I don’t know of any better place I could have taken a stand. Selma is my home. I love Selma. It’s my life.”

J.L. Chestnut closed his book, co-authored with Julia Cass, with these words.

On Tuesday morning, Chestnut, known to many of his friends as “Chess,” died in a hospital in Birmingham. Family members said he had suffered from various illnesses for a long time.

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Many will miss his presence on his radio program — something friends said he dearly loved to do several times each week. He’d stir the pot with a special guest or two, then use the time to teach a bit of history of this city he loved so much.

It is through his voice that so many knew Chestnut.

He gave voice to that history of Selma he knew so well, from the Great Depression and that time of segregation when black people sat in the “buzzard roof” of the theater, couldn’t try on clothes in department stores or went to S.H. Kress because it had the only “colored” bathroom in a department store.

He gave voice to those during the Jim Crow era that were voiceless by going to law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and returning home two years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. For years, Chestnut was Selma’s first and only black attorney.

He was present by the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday in 1965. The event, he said, became his turning point as it did for many black Americans after the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Chestnut was a student of power and how it affected blacks and whites in the South. He analyzed it and worked to give voice to blacks and whites that had none in that power struggle.

He was not always appreciated or liked by some — the downside of living life as an advocate. Chestnut did not mince words. He did not suffer fools lightly. He believed Selma progressed from confrontation, and Chestnut was not afraid to be confrontational when he felt it was needed. His life, even to the end, was a struggle.

He spoke of himself as much as he did of Martin Luther King Jr. when he observed the struggle for equal rights more than a generation after the Voting Rights Act passed.

“We are far from the world envisioned by King in his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” Chestnut wrote. “We are closer to it, but getting there will continue to be a struggle. People forgot that King said near the end of that speech, ‘I [now] go back to the South’ — meaning to implement the dream of freedom and justice for all by marches, boycotts, and other means the establishment detested. I see King, at the expense of his life, striving to realize the dream, not just pleasantly dreaming.”