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J.L. Chestnut, first black lawyer in Selma, dies

Desiree Hunter
J.L. Chestnut, first black lawyer in Selma, dies
This 1978 photo shows attorney J.L. Chestnut Jr., the first black lawyer in Selma and a prominent attorney in civil rights cases for half a century. He died at 77 on Sept. 30 at a Birmingham hospital. (Photo: AP /Selma Times-Journal)

SELMA, Ala. — J.L. Chestnut Jr., the first black lawyer in Selma and a prominent attorney in civil rights cases across a half-century, died last week at age 77.

Chestnut’s law partner, state Sen. Hank Sanders of Selma, said Chestnut died Sept. 30 morning at a Birmingham hospital. He said Chestnut’s kidneys had begun to fail from an infection after an operation.

A Selma native who got his law degree at Howard University, Chestnut returned to his hometown in 1958 and became a key legal figure in the civil rights battles in Selma. Later he defended blacks in major voter fraud prosecutions and helped black farmers make financial claims against the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“He was really a giant as far as fighting for black voting and legal rights for half a century,” said Julia Cass, a former journalist who co-authored Chestnut’s autobiography, “Black In Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut Jr.”

“He was just an indomitable advocate for black people, whether it was getting them to vote, getting them on juries, desegregating the schools, having a black Santa in the mall, getting black people to run for office,” she said. “So over the course of his lifetime, there’s certainly no one more important in terms of black empowerment in Selma than J.L. Chestnut.”

Friends and co-workers also remembered him as a character whose clowning could always make for an entertaining lunch or get-together. He had a knack for injecting humor into tense discussions and wasn’t scared of pointing out elephants in the room when others were too afraid, they said.

The Rev. C.T. Vivian of Atlanta worked with Chestnut when activists arrived in Selma surrounding the “Bloody Sunday” beatings that eventually led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“He was one of our most important lawyers in that whole struggle in Selma,” Vivian said. “He represented Dr. Martin Luther King because he was often the person to go to City Hall and he knew everybody in town.”

Chestnut brought Sanders and his wife, Faya Rose Toure, both black lawyers who graduated from Harvard Law School, into his Selma law practice, expanding its reach.

His legal work included defending blacks in major voter fraud prosecutions brought by the Justice Department in west Alabama in the 1980s. He joined other black leaders in a meeting with then-Attorney General Edwin Meese in 1985 to complain about the department’s handling of civil rights issues.

Later he was a lead attorney in a class-action lawsuit that thousands of black farmers filed against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for regularly denying subsidies and other assistance to them because of their race.

A federal judge approved a settlement of the case in 2000 and Chestnut led the appeals for thousands of farmers who were denied compensation in the federal settlement.

Cass, who lives in New Orleans and with Chestnut’s help recently finished a murder-mystery set in a small fictional Alabama town in 1964, said their friendship taught her there is “a white point of view and a black point of view.”

“People would always tell Chess, ‘Oh, you bring up race too much. Everything with you is about race.’ And when you think about it, when he was growing up, everything was about race,” Cass said. “It decided what school you were going to go to, what law school you could get into, where you could sit in the movie theater — everything was determined by race, so why wouldn’t it be important? I guess that’s what I really learned from him.”

Sanders said Chestnut fought mightily to keep his health.

“He’d get better and come back to work, then he’d end up sick again,” Sanders said.

Chestnut awoke from a coma on Sept. 28 and “when I touched him, he opened his eyes and tried to smile … now he’s gone,” Sanders said. “It’s a mighty fine voice that is now silent.”

(Associated Press)