J.L. Chestnut Jr., Selma’s first Black lawyer and lifelong advocate for equality and racial justice, died September 30, 2008, in Birmingham, Alabama, at age 77.
Mr. Chestnut was born in Selma, Alabama, in 1930. After graduating from Howard Law School in Washington, D.C., he returned to Selma and became the city’s first Black lawyer in 1958. He founded the firm of Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders & Pettway, that through the 1990s was the largest Black firm in Alabama.
Mr. Chestnut fought for voting rights for African Americans, represented civil rights leaders including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and and laid the groundwork for the Selma to Montgomery in March 1965. He filed civil rights cases to have Blacks allowed on juries in Dallas County and to desegregate Selma’s public schools. Among other successes, his firm won a nearly $1 billion settlement for a coalition of Black farmers who were discriminated against in programs overseen by the Department of Agriculture.
Mr. Chestnut was a member of the original Board of Directors of the Alabama Capital Representation Resource Center, which later became EJI.
A legendary trial lawyer, mesmerizing storyteller, and tireless force for justice, J.L. Chestnut told NPR in a 1990 interview that writing his autobiography, “Black in Selma,” caused him to reflect on how much progress has been made in the struggle for equality, and reminded us how far we still have to go.