“We have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr. New York Amsterdam News, December 1963
Last week’s gathering at the foot of the iconic Edmond Pettus Bridge in historic Selma, Ala., and the disgusting behavior of a few fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma each serve as a stark reminder of just how far most of the nation has come, and how much farther some have yet to go on the march toward the fulfillment of, not only the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “Dream”, but more fundamentally, American’s constant struggle to “… live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I am reminded again of the words of another one of my mentors, J.L. Chestnut Jr. when he shared some of his memories of Selma: “If ever I was born again, I was born again right there on the courthouse steps,” he wrote after attending Howard University Law School in Washington D.C. upon returning to his hometown, Selma, Ala., in 1958 as the city’s first black lawyer.
Chestnut went on to fight for voting rights for all Americans, especially African Americans, laying the groundwork for the march led by Doctor King from Selma to Montgomery which in turn, led directly to LBJ’s signing of 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 … that is, until the current radical United States Supreme Court effectively gutted it.
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, only months before the first African America President’s inauguration
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 sheriff 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 to shoulder … Facing Clark was John Lewis and a ragtag group of about 25 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 September 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.”
The impact of Mr. Chestnut’s work continues to this day, long 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.
Dr. King’s prophetic voice still echoes around the world, and the spirit of Chestnut’s hard work still lives in the hearts and souls of the many young lawyers, teachers and other professional “soldiers in the struggle” who, like me were inspired by their passion, the present tide of resistance to righteous change rolls on.
It is time for the youth of this generation to pick up the challenge wherever they find it: on the college campuses, in the mega as well as tiny churches, in the streets and anyplace else the ugly face of racism raises its empty head!
Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org