Niagara Gazette — “By our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim… we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”
— Martin Luther King, New York Amsterdam News, December 1963
“If ever I was born again, I was born again right there on the courthouse steps,” wrote J.L. Chestnut Jr., who after attending Howard University Law school in Washington D.C. returned to his hometown, Selma, Alabama in 1958 as the city’s first black lawyer, and who then went on to fight for voting rights for all Americans, especially African Americans, thereby laying the groundwork for the march led by the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery which led directly to the 1965 Voting Rights Act and indirectly to the subsequent election of President Barack Obama.
Ironically, though King would not live to witness the harvest, they both realized that the seeds they were casting in the fields for fairness and racial equality would inevitably bear the sweet fruit of their labor. Chestnut, whose 1990 book, co-written by Julia Cass, Black in Selma: “The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut, Jr., Politics and Power in a Small American Town” died at the age of 77 in September 2008.
Their book masterfully chronicles his role in the small town of Selma, Ala., as he, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the courageous people who lived there dared to challenge the status quo, taking on the powerful armed violence, beatings and death wielded by the racist and totally corrupt local sherriff and the state government that backed him.
Chestnut’s “born again” epiphany on the courthouse steps recalls his realization that King was right. He was emerging from the courthouse when he witnessed “a remarkable confrontation between SNCC president John Lewis and Sheriff Clark.”
“I came out on the steps and there in the street below was an awesome line of state troopers-blue uniforms shoulder ... Facing Clark was John Lewis and a ragtag group of about twenty-five marchers. Clark said, “This is as far as you can go. Turn around and go back. You are NOT going in the courthouse today.” John said, “The courthouse is a public place and we have a right to go inside. We will NOT be turned around.”
Chestnut wrote, “I could feel my heart pound in my head ... I waited there nervously for two minutes that seemed like two hours as the big, burly white man and the rather short, small black man faced off in the middle of Alabama Avenue.
Then Clark blinked and backed away. “Goddamn it, go on in, “he said, and the blue line of troopers parted like the Red Sea ...”
“I’ll be damned. I’ll be damned! The establishment has blinked!”
Wrote Chestnut, “In that moment I saw that the white South was NOT invincible.”
What I had thought was power in numbers and weapons I began to see as a kind of weakness ... I understood for the first time some of the things King had been saying ... about moral right being superior to temporal power, or saying, “If there is nothing for which you are willing to die, you are not fit to live.”
King was right.
New York Times writer Bruce Weber’s obituary published Sept. 30, 2008 referred to him as “an underpublicized figure in the civil rights movement, a black man who began his career by taking on the ordinary legal briefs of ordinary black men and women, daring to work within the white establishment to achieve just ends.
As Weber pointed out, “Mr. Chestnut pried dozens if not hundreds of voting rights demonstrators out of Selma’s jails, and he was present at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, a day that became known as Bloody Sunday when the police beat demonstrators to prevent them from beginning a march to Montgomery. It was two weeks later that the march, led by Dr. King, was actually completed.”
Quoting Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, who was jailed and beaten by the Selma police, Weber wrote, “I don’t know what would have happened to us in Selma if it wasn’t for Chestnut. Selma was a vicious place, vicious. I don’t know how he survived there, I really don’t. He used the law to help liberate the black folk of Alabama. He was a lawyer, but he was also a foot soldier. He was a brave and courageous man.”
Mr. Chestnut’s work continued after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law. He filed civil rights cases to get African Americans on juries; to desegregate the Selma public schools; and to ensure blacks the opportunity to work as coaches and principals in the schools he worked to desegregate.
King’s prophetic voice still echoes, his spirit lives; neither his work nor Chestnut’s yet finished.Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org