October 2, 2008

Contact: Heather Gray 404 765 0991

Attorney J.L. Chestnut Will Be Missed
The Country Has Lost One Of It’s Most Profound Civil Rights Warriors

Ralph Paige, J.L. Chestnut, Danny Glover, Hank Sanders at 2002 Federation Event in Birmingham

ATLANTA….Attorney J.L. Chestnut, a beloved hero of the civil rights movement and the struggles for justice, died on September 30, 2008.  He was born in Selma, Alabama (Dallas County) in 1930. “We in the rural south have relied on his wisdom and advocacy, in addition to his great legal talent,” said Ralph Paige, Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. “A world without Mr. Chestnut will be difficult, but he inspired so many of us to stand up for our rights regardless of the challenges that his legacy will always be felt.”

Chestnut’s long and impressive history against racial injustice in the South has been written about extensively and expressed by him with his booming voice and biting humor in forums across the country. The book Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut, Jr. (1990) by J.L. Chestnut and Julia Cass is filled with examples of his early life in Selma in the midst of the South’s Jim Crow white supremacy and his subsequent legal and personal battles against it.

His role in providing support to civil rights activists and against systemic racism in his hometown of Selma, Alabama is pivotal to understanding the importance of his early and on-going work. He became Selma’s first black attorney in 1959, just five years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v Board of Education school desegregation decision. Ultimately his law firm became Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders & Pettaway with Attorneys Hank Sanders, Faya Ora Rose Toure, and Collins Pettaway.

From the start, Chestnut launched into his life’s work of fighting racism in the south and he never stopped!  In 1955 he came home from college to witness the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Peter Hall, a young black attorney from Birmingham, defended the accused. Hall was the first black attorney to try a case in Selma and he made a statement in that trial that remained Chestnut’s motto throughout his legal career which was: “I don’t know whether my client is guilty or not but it’s damn sure the system is. I’m going to try the system while the circuit solicitor tries my client.”

Cases he has involved himself in include serving as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s lead counsel to implement the Brown v Board decision in Alabama; he was the attorney for Martin Luther King, Jr. and countless other civil rights leaders such as Ralph Abernathy, Dick Gregory, Joseph Lowery, James Foreman and Bernard Lafayette as they worked out of Selma in the 1960’s; in 1968 he filed a case that led to the right of blacks to serve on juries in Dallas County for the first time in 100 years; he filed suits that led to jobs for blacks in the city halls and courthouses of Alabama along and he took under his wing an abundance of criminal law and capital cases.

The above are but a small sampling of his extensive work. In fact, Chestnut is considered by many to be one of the most talented and brilliant attorneys the country has produced.  His performance in the courtroom is renowned. Virtually nothing would get past him. His turn of phrase, his spirited penetrating arguments, and his humor are the stuff of legend. You could never accuse him of silence. He said what had to be said bluntly, passionately and to the point. He was relentless.

For twenty years, Chestnut shared his views in his popular article “The Cold Hard Truth” for the Greene County Democrat in Alabama (published and edited by John and Carol Zippert) and for other papers across the country. At one point Chestnut represented the Greene County Democrat in a major libel case, which he won hands down.

One of his more recent and historic legal challenges was that he thankfully chose to litigate as one of the lead counsels for black farmers who filed suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the late 1990’s.  The case was originally known as the Pigford v Glickman Class Action Lawsuit (Tim Pigford being a black farmer from North Carolina and Dan Glickman the Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton Administration) and now Pigford v Schafer.

In hearings in the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. in the 1990’s, Chestnut railed against the government for it’s outrageous discrimination against black farmers. He so impressed the court and the government attorneys that many were convinced that the government settled because the government’s attorneys were nervous about having to defend the case with Chestnut as the opposing attorney in a courtroom setting.

The civil rights class action lawsuit that black farmers filed against the U.S. government is the largest in U.S. history, which also demonstrates the tragedy and depth of the government’s discriminatory behavior. This victory would never have become a reality without the insightful and astute leadership of J.L. Chestnut.

At virtually every juncture, prior to and since the Pigford case settled in 1998, Chestnut addressed black farmer members of the Federation/LAF. In February 1998, he spoke before farmers at the Federation/LAF’s Farmers Conference in Albany, Georgia. He expressed concern that mediation behind closed doors does not provide the opportunity for black farmers to tell their case to the American public. "Americans need to hear from you" he said.  "America needs to know what your own government has done to you over the years."

Another concern of Chestnut’s was the concept by some in the government that discrimination is aimed at the individual and not at the group. "That's the biggest lie that's ever been told," Chestnut said. "I'm almost 70 years old and I cannot think of a single instance where discrimination was aimed at me but not at everybody else who looks like me. What the Department of Agriculture has been doing over the years has not been done to some selective black farmers, it's been done to every black farmer." 

In February 2005, speaking again in Albany to black farmers about the lawsuit, Chestnut said:

I will stand here and tell you that if I had understood in 1997 the magnitude, the real magnitude of mistrust that hurting black farmers felt against their government I would have searched for some kind of formula specifically to address that problem. I don’t know what we would have come up with. I don’t know if we could have come up with anything, but more attention would have been given to the problem. When people have been ruined by their government it is hard from them to believe that this government now wants to help them. And I don’t care how much you advertise or where you advertise, you can’t get really to that problem in depth….

The real problem comes from hurt and deceit practiced by the government since the Civil War…. 

I am never surprised that arrogant government lawyers despise me, because the feeling couldn’t be more mutual. But for some arrogant overly educated government lawyer to wallow in racism against poor innocent black farmers is mind-boggling. And I saw it day in and day out and had to deal with it day in and day out. My wife will tell you that, in 1997, sometimes I would leave home on Monday and be gone for a week or longer in Washington fighting and struggling, and trying understand how could anybody be so shallow as some of these folk turned out to be. 

We had one of the fairest judges on the bench in this case, but even he could not understand the reach, the stench of racism. He had no idea sometimes of what I was talking about because, unlike me, he was not born into a citadel of racism and…fighting it all of his life.

More recently, the U.S. Congress included in the 2008 Farm Bill a provision to assist 65,000 black farmers who petitioned late in the Pigford lawsuit but have not yet been able to file a claim. Characteristically, J.L. Chestnut once again chose to assist these farmers as lead counsel in this latest phase of the lawsuit.

In appreciation of his impressive advocacy and concrete legal representation, in 2008 the Federation/LAF presented J.L. Chestnut with the Robert S. Browne Award for his significant role in helping to maintain black landownership in America.

As civil rights marchers began the trek from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965 to demand their voting rights and crossed over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Governor George Wallace’s Alabama State Patrol accosted them. Chestnut was there that day. He recalled hearing the bones of marchers being crushed by the horses ridden by the state patrol. He was appalled at this outrage against those who demanded their democratic rights. The event became known in the annals as “Bloody Sunday.”

Brutal attacks such as “Bloody Sunday” were obviously meant to intimidate those who demanded change, but nothing would stop the movement for justice in the 1960’s. In fact, Chestnut once said, “The Federation (created in 1967) is one of the many organizations spawned by the blood that was spilt on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965.”

But without doubt, J.L. Chestnut epitomized the determination of the movement. The man had formidable courage! Nothing seemed to stop him from moving forward and challenging the most egregious injustices. There was probably no one who understood the “citadel of racism” like him, which he used as fodder for his arguments and rationale. He called a spade a spade, a racist a racist. He was never willing to compromise when it had to do with injustice, and everyone knew it.

Note: The Federation/LAF, now in its 41st year, assists Black family farmers across the South with farm management, debt restructuring, alternative crop suggestions, marketing expertise and a whole range of services to ensure family farm survivability. 
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