J.L. Chestnut funeral at 1 p.m. Wednesday

Published 10:29 am Tuesday, October 7, 2008

J.L. Chestnut, Jr. was born in Selma, Alabama to Geraldine Phillip Chestnut and J.L. Chestnut, Sr. on December 16, 1930. He departed this life on September 30, 2008. He graduated from Knox Academy in 1948, Dillard University in 1953, and Howard University Law School in 1958. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and served from 1954-1956.

J.L. Chestnut, Jr. opened his law office in 1959, the first African American to do so in Selma. At the time, he was one of only nine black lawyers practicing in the State of Alabama. In 1972, he, Rose M. Sanders and Hank Sanders formed the law firm of Chestnut, Sanders, and Sanders which grew into the largest Black law firm in Alabama and one of the ten largest in the country at one time. J.L. Chestnut, Jr. was senior partner.

In 1963, J.L. Chestnut Jr. helped Bernard Lafayette, the first full time civil rights worker in Selma, to persuade black Selmians to attend the first mass meetings which was a very dangerous undertaking at the time. That was the beginning of the “Selma Movement” which, along with other voting rights struggles, led to Bloody Sunday, the Selma to Montgomery March and passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. When Dr. Martin Luther King set up shop in Selma in 1964, J.L. Chestnut represented Dr. King and hundreds of demonstrators, including James Foreman, Dick Gregory, John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, Joseph Lowery and many others. His voice was a key on in the historic Selma Civil Rights battle.

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The national spotlight moved from Selma in the 1960’s, but J. L. Chestnut stayed. He settled in for the longer and more difficult march of turning civil rights victories into lasting “ grass roots” gains. In 1968, he initiated the case that won black people the right to sit on juries in Dallas County, Alabama for the first time in 100 years. He filed racial discrimination suits that won jobs for black people in city hall and the county courthouse. He filed the lawsuit that resulted in the first black person being named principal of integrated Selma High School in 1976.

J.L. Chestnut, Jr. defended more capital cases than any lawyer in Alabama and never lost a client to the electric chair. He was a NAACP lead counsel in implementing the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision in Alabama. He was a lead class counsel in the polybuthelene pipe case, which resulted in the largest class action settlement in Alabama history at the time.

J. L. Chestnut, Jr. was class counsel in the Black farmers case. This national class action on behalf of more than 20,000 poor farmers against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) resulted in more than $1 billion being paid to poor black farmers. United States District Court Judge Paul Friedman, who presides over the case in Washington, D.C., quoted him seven times in the 67 page court decree approving the settlement with the government.

As a spinoff of the Black farmer’s case, J. L. Chestnut, Jr. Helped organize a similar litigation against USDA on behalf of Native Americans, Latinos and Women. He was also involved in class action litigation against major manufacturers of tobacco products.

Over the past five (5) decades, Mr. Chestnut has remained what he calls “A lawyer for the little and forgotten people of this world.” His clients are often ordinary people up against something much larger and more powerful than they are. He always stood with the least of these. J. L. Chestnut, Jr. was very proud of the many young lawyers he helped train and develop. Many have followed in his footsteps of service and standing with the least of these. From the ranks of his law firm have come two (2) circuit court judges, one (1) city judge, a state senator, a county commissioner and a city councilman.

The widely read autobiography of J.L. Chestnut, Jr., Black in Selma, was published in 1990 and republished in 1992. He also co-authored a novel, “The Downing Round” which has not yet been published. J. L. Chestnut, Jr. is the recipient of numerous awards including an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from St. Michael College in Vermont. J.L. Chestnut served as the first board chair of the powerful Alabama New South Coalition, the second board chair of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, and President of the Alabama Black Lawyers Association. He served on many other boards including the Board of Trustees of the University of South Alabama and the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science. Of the many positions he held, he most enjoyed being chairman of the Board of Deacons at his beloved First Baptist Church.

J. L. Chestnut, Jr. was a great communicator, speaking publicly across the country, writing a weekly column entitled “The Hard Cold Truth,” and hosting the widely popular Selma talk radio program, “Public Conversation.” He spoke at a variety of forums across the country including the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning, America,” BET’s “Lead Story,” CBS’s “Nightlife,” and numerous other television and radio programs.

J. L. Chestnut, Jr. leaves to cherish his memories his beloved wife Vivian; six children – J. L., III, Inetta Geraldine (Louis), Vivian, Terrance (Sandra), Gregory (Angie), and Kim; eight grandchildren, Shawn, Shequitta, Danielle, Jay, J. L. IV, Deaven, Phallen and Chase; three great grandchildren – Kirabo, Sehn-Rah, and Mea; one sister, Johnnie Mae Chestnut; his paralegal/executive assistant of 37 years Barnette R. Hayes and a host of relatives and friends.

Funeral will be Wednesday, October 8 at 1:00 p.m. at First Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Street. Viewing will be at J.H. Williams Funeral Home on Tuesday, October 7 from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.