Local judge accepts award for Civil Rights pioneer

Published 6:06 pm Saturday, March 14, 2009

I went to The University of Georgia School of Law to accept a lifetime achievement award for J.L. Chestnut Jr. during The UGA School of Law’s Fourth Annual Working in the Public Interest Conference on Friday, Feb. 27. Upon accepting the posthumous award, I stated the following:

“J.L. Chestnut was a one-of-a-kind man. He was not only a first class trial lawyer, but also an activist, prolific newspaper columnist, radio talk show host and humanitarian. He served the public interest his entire professional life.

He literally did more pro bono work in the years I was with him than 100 lawyers combined might do in a lifetime. He practiced law for 49 _ years and was probably the most prolific trial lawyer in Alabama history. He told me that during the 1960s it was nothing for him to try three felony cases in one week. He represented Dr. King, Bernard Lafayette and multitudes of demonstrators and protestors during the Civil Rights Movement.

Email newsletter signup

His instincts, his intellect and his wit are [not] teachable. He spoke with authority and with the eloquence of a James Earl Jones or a Sean Connery. He was trained by Thurgood Marshall and wrote speeches for Adam Clayton Powell while attending law school. He started off doing public service work with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

For 49 _ years he practiced law in the public interest. He did not practice law for money, he practiced law because he loved it. He literally turned down millions of dollars during his lifetime. He once represented Ford Motor Company and ultimately terminated the relationship because he said it did not feel right to be on the opposite side of people he had represented and fought for his whole life.

Out of all the cases he was involved in, no case stirred his soul like the Black Farmers case (Pigford v. Glickman), which turned out to be the biggest civil rights lawsuit in U.S. history.

The lesson that his life can teach us is that whatever talents you possess, you should use them to help people and create social change. On behalf of the entire Chestnut family, I want to thank you for this honor and I am moved by the appreciation and love that you have shown him.”