Friends, family memorialize J.L. Chestnut, Jr.

Published 2:09 am Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Family and friends gathered to remember J.L. Chestnut at First Baptist Church on Tuesday.

Gerald Chestnut Riberio, his daughter, conducted the ceremony.

“He was truly a part of the fabric of Selma. He embraced and valued Selma,” said Dr. Richard Arrington Jr., the first African American mayor of Birmingham. “I understand that which I love is clearer to me in his absence. I’m here to celebrate the life of a good man.”

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Chestnut’s former law partner, Sen. Hank Sanders, expressed his condolences to the family as well.

“He was just a special person. When three lawyers get together and stay together for 37 years, you feel like you’re married to each other,” said Sanders. “I miss him, but I just want the family to know that God knows what God is doing. That’s all I need to know. God is still at work.”

Sanders most remembered Chestnut for his humor.

“You cannot celebrate J.L. Chestnut without humor,” he said. “He could tell jokes better than comedians. It was just a gift.”

Sanders illustrated his point with a story about a case he and Chestnut were working on. Chestnut didn’t tell Sanders what their client was accused of or who he was.

When they walked into the courtroom, the judge yelled at Chestnut to approach the bench. He took Chestnut off to the side, and Sanders decided to join the conversation.

“I thought he was blessing J.L. out, and I got over there — the judge was telling him a dirty joke,” said Sanders. “And he was telling the judge a dirty joke, too.”

Arrington remembered Chestnut for qualities commonly held in the highest of esteem.

“When we live and interact with a tolerant being — one who is unique, one who we all think is bright, passionate, courageous, fearless —we can’t quite bring ourselves in our minds to understand how he does it or what makes him that way,” he said.

“How can that man be such an enigma? How can we take him for granted?”

Larry Humphrey of the Macon County Bar remembered a great lawyer.

“I want to express to this family how much ‘Chess’ meant to me personally. The association has lost a great member,” said Humphrey. “We will so miss him. The Lord only made one J.L. Chestnut.”

John Zipper came on behalf of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a southeastern organization that organizes cooperatives and works with black farmers.

He best remembered Chestnut’s work with the newspaper he started and ran.

“On behalf of our newspaper, we appreciate him,” said Zipper. “He wrote a column called ‘The cold, hard truth,’ and a lot of people bought the paper for his column.”

Chestnut, the first black lawyer in Selma, represented clientele that ranged from civil rights icons to farmers.

Funeral services will be held today at 1 p.m. at the Green Street First Baptist Church.