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Pettaway requests renaming Courthouse

A partner at a local law firm has requested the Dallas County Commission rename the courthouse in honor of the late J.L. Chestnut Jr., Selma’s first black attorney.

Collins Pettaway, a partner at Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders & Pettaway, the law firm founded by Chestnut, made the request during the commission’s Monday meeting.

Pettaway said that he had talked earlier with county attorney John Kelly III. After the conversation, Pettaway concluded that the county had full authority to name the building as it saw fit.

The honor, Pettaway said, was befitting of “one of the premiere lawyers in this country.”

Commissioner Clifford Hunter made a motion to re-name the courthouse, but it did not garner a second.

However, the issue is not dead, according to Probate Judge Kim Ballard, commission chairman.

“What I would like to suggest to the commissioners is we need a little time to think about this and move toward the direction that properly would honor Mr. Chestnut,” Ballard said. “Whether it be naming the courthouse or naming something else, whatever the commissioners desire to do. Nobody would doubt that he’s a special man, and he deserves the recognition.”

Chestnut established his practice in 1959. Thirteen years later, he established a partnership with Sen. Hank Sanders and his wife, Rose, which eventually grew into the largest black law firm in Alabama and one of the largest in the country.

Although clients included those as prestigious as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Chestnut was also known for fighting for the cause of people who otherwise would not have a voice.

During his presentation to the commission, Pettaway cited other cities that have named their courthouses after prominent civil rights figures.

He specifically mentioned the Mel Bailey Criminal Justice Center in Birmingham, named after the former Jefferson County sheriff. Bailey was the longest-tenured sheriff in the county’s history (1963-96) and was noted for trying to contain police brutality toward activists during the heart of the civil rights movement.

Pettaway said Chestnut’s merit, as a contributor to society, should stand on its own.

“Mr. Chestnut was not a regular person, so I don’t want to compare him to anyone else,” Pettaway said. “But I know some other counties have taken action.”

Pettaway also suggested that the commission discuss the matter with family members before making a decision.

The commissioners agreed to discuss the matter further, but gave no timetable for a decision.