In Memoriam

J.L. Chestnut (1930-2008)

J.L. Chestnut, the civil rights lawyer who was the first black attorney in the city of Selma, Alabama, has died of renal failure at a hospital in Birmingham. He was 77 years old.
During the voting rights battles of the mid-1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders relied on the legal skills of Chestnut to fight injunctions against civil rights demonstrations and to keep protesters out of jail.

After the civil rights era, the firm of Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders & Pettaway became the largest black law firm in the state of Alabama. When a white judge warned Chestnut to be respectful of white women on his legal staff, Chestnut told the judge he respected all women “and unlike you, I respect black women.”

More recently, Chestnut was the lead attorney in a class-action lawsuit filed by black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture charging racially discriminatory practices in the awards of farm subsidies. In 2000 Chestnut unsuccessfully defended the black nationalist Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, formerly H. Rap Brown, on murder charges.

Chestnut was the son of a grocer and elementary school teacher. He graduated from Dillard University in New Orleans and earned his law degree at Howard University in 1958. After graduation from Howard he immediately returned to Alabama and took up what became a half-century-long battle for equal rights.