The infamous 1965 "Bloody Sunday" civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., put that sleepy segregated town into the national spotlight.
An important, though lesser-known, figure in those events was J.L. Chestnut--a fiery, hometown, Howard University-trained lawyer who through intelligence, force of will, and (in many cases) luck managed to change the town's laws and attitudes. Black in Selma, his unpretentious autobiography cowritten by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Julia Cass, recalls Chestnut's lifelong battles with the brutal segregation enforced by whites, as well as underachievement, classism, miseducation, and Afro-pessimism among local blacks.
Throughout the book, Chestnut reveals in ribald and revolutionary tones the complexities and contradictions of simultaneously working with the law and outside it, including a riveting moment alongside future congressman John Lewis as they stood eyeball-to-eyeball with a local sheriff who blocked their enteric into a court building. His encounters with activist organizations such as the NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC further illuminate the philosophical intersections and collisions between various factions of the civil rights movement. Overall, J.L. Chestnut's story is about how a people accustomed to injustice grew to fight for freedom with their lives. "After centuries of ducking and dodging," he writes, "black people have come out of the closet--and they liked the air." --Eugene Holley Jr.
A civil rights classic returns to print.
On March 7, 1965, George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, lined the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma with state troopers to prevent a civil rights march to Montgomery for the black vote. Among those present was a thirty-four-year-old lawyer, J. L. Chestnut, Jr., the only black lawyer in Selma at that time, a man whose own struggle both parallels and exemplifies the growth of the civil rights movement since the early sixties. Journalist Julia Cass met Chestnut while covering the South for The Philadelphia Inquirer and was struck not only by the representative nature of his story but by his deeply perceptive reading of the realities of power and politics in the South. The result of their collaboration is Black in Selma, Chestnut's extraordinary autobiography.
J. L. Chestnut, Jr., is the founder of Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders, Turner, Williams & Pettaway, the largest black law firm in Alabama. Julia Cass wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer and is now at the Buenos Aires Herald in Argentina.