First Black Selma, Ala., Lawyer Dies

Published October 17, 2008

Posted Oct. 16, 2008 – J.L. Chestnut Jr., the first Black lawyer in Selma and a prominent attorney in civil rights cases across a half century, has died at age 77, The Associated Press reports.

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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. Agriculture Department.

"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. 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," said Julia Cass, a former journalist who co-authored Chestnut's autobiography, "Black In Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut Jr." 

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.

Chestnut brought state Sen. Hank Sanders  and his wife, Faya Rose Toure, both Black lawyers who graduated from Harvard Law School, into his Selma law practice, expanding its reach. He was 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.

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."

Sanders said Chestnut fought mightily to keep his health. Chestnut awoke from a coma on Sunday 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."

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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Written by BET-Staff

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