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.”