Chestnut laid to rest

Published 11:12 pm Wednesday, October 8, 2008

SELMA — Only steps away from where the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march began, family, friends and supporters marked the end of J.L. Chestnut Jr.’s time on earth.

An attorney and civil rights pioneer whose name is attached to some of the most famous cases and clients in American history was memorialized in funeral services at First Baptist Church. The church on the corner of Martin Luther King Street and Jeff Davis Avenue — down the street from historic Brown Chapel A.M.E. — was the site of one of the initial mass meetings for organizing voter registration among blacks in Dallas County.

Chestnut died in a Birmingham hospital Sept. 30 after battling illness for a year.

Email newsletter signup

Bernard Lafayette, a Civil Rights activist, minister and lecturer, eulogized Chestnut during a service that attracted political leaders and activists from around the South and the nation.

Lafayette joked that of the 27 times he had been arrested, the first time he was found not guilty was when he was a client of Chestnut’s.

He also spoke about what many people perceived to be Chestnut’s contentious nature, an impression given by his boisterous voice and no-nonsense way of speaking. He was an outspoken fighter against discrimination and remained that way long after Jim Crow laws were wiped from the books.

“He did not have any animosity towards white people,” Lafayette said. “He understood they were individuals who had policies, and he stood against those policies.”

Among those who spoke during Wednesday’s service were former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, U.S. Congressman Artur Davis, Amelia Boynton Robinson, Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Charles Steele and Selma Mayor James Perkins Jr.

Born in Selma in Dec. 16, 1930, Chestnut returned home almost 30 years later after serving in the army from 1954-56 and receiving his law degree from Howard University Law School in 1958. He became the first black lawyer in the city in 1959.

He represented the plaintiff in Pigford v. Glickman, a landmark discrimination case that led to more than $1 billion in reparations to American black farmers.

“The minute J.L. joined the case, it became what it was,” said Al Pires, one of the original counselors for the suit. “Life has been a lot rougher and a lot harder than I thought it would be. Outside of your own family, it’s hard to find anyone who really loves you.”

Steele said that if Chestnut was still alive today, he would advise everyone to “keep marching, raise hell and go to jail.”

That, according to Siegelman, was the essence of who his belated friend was.

“I was there in 1972 when J.L. told Charles Steele to raise hell and go to jail, and I did,” Siegelman said, drawing laughter from the gathering inside the church. “J.L. was different. He had a special vision, a special strength and he had a very, very loud voice. You could hear J.L. above the crowd, above the sirens and the bull horns and you could hear him when he wanted to make a point.”

Chestnut, Sen. Hank Sanders and his wife, Rose, began the law firm of Chestnut, Sanders and Sanders in 1972.

The senator remembered the character of his friend. Before agreeing to begin the law partnership, Chestnut first made up his mind to deal with his alcohol problem.

“He said I’ve got a problem I’ve got to deal with that I don’t want to put on you,” Sanders said. “After about eight months, he came back to me and said, ‘Hank, I’ve licked my problem. Let’s start that partnership.’”

Above all, Chestnut held faith and family in high regard. He was a deacon at First Baptist, and he and his wife, Vivian, raised six children. Chestnut was a father figure to several other people.

He is also noted for taking on clients whose cause he felt worthy, even if it meant making less money — or sometimes no money at all.

“Chess talked to everybody,” said cousin Frank Chestnut. “You didn’t have to be worth two cents. Chess would talk to you, listen to you, and at the end he would fight for you.”