Black Lawyer in Alabama

First-person story tells of the struggle for equal rights in the South

BLACK IN SELMA: THE UNCOMMON LIFE OF J.L. CHESTNUT, JR., By J.L. Chestnut, Jr. & Julia Cass. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 432 pp., $22.95 WHEN J.L. Chestnut became the first black lawyer in Selma, Ala., in 1958, he planned a ``garden variety'' practice, the criminal and civil cases that make up a small-town legal practice everywhere.

But ``Chess'' was beginning his life's work two years after the Montgomery bus boycott and four years after the Supreme Court had destroyed segregation's legality.

As the only black professional in the Dallas County Courthouse, his status and his prickly personality gave him an unusual perch and perspective from which to watch and record the racial battles that occupy Selma's black and white citizens even today.

As his adult life paralleled the development of the civil-rights movement in his city and his state, Chestnut became an observer-participant in the great struggle for equal rights fought in Alabama's courts and streets and remains an active critic of white privilege today.

``Black in Selma'' is a valuable addition to the growing list of first-person accounts of the modern civil-rights movement. In simple narrative style, Chestnut and journalist Julia Cass trace his life from his birth in 1930 through 1989's confrontations over Selma's first black school superintendent, which seemed to many a depressing replay of Selma's moment in the civil-rights spotlight in 1965.

Chestnut's story underscores the intractability of white racism and the inevitability of the famous clashes between civil-rights forces and unyielding white authority, both in 1965 and in 1989.

He was born in 1930, the only child of working-class parents. By the time J.L. was 8, his father had opened a grocery store with an uncle. His mother became a schoolteacher when he was in his teens.

The family's fortunes foundered on the business machinations of a white man. Nevertheless, the Chestnuts were determined that J.L. would get a college education.

Resisting the lure of night life in Washington, D.C., Chestnut returned to Selma in 1958 after graduating from the district's Howard University Law School, the training ground for a generation of civil-rights lawyers.

Back in the heart of the Black Belt, he soon found himself raising constitutional issues in cases he was doomed to lose before white judges and juries. On appeal, lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) would fight and frequently win on grounds Chestnut and other members of Alabama's small band of black lawyers had first bravely raised in rural, segregated courtrooms.

He was an active member of the inactive Dallas County voter's League - there were 150 blacks registered in Selma in 1965 - which invited Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to come to Selma.

He is careful, however, to give credit to the Rev. Bernard Lafayette, a field worker from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who braved the brutality of white officials and fought the fear of local blacks to organize voting efforts two years before King's arrival. Chestnut's chronicle makes it clear that a small but brave minority of blacks labored against great odds in Selma long before any professional civil-rights workers came, bringing with them attention from the national media and ultimately corrective action from an outraged public.

Chestnut unfolds the great variety found in black Selma: activists, moderates, and accommodationists. While it is clear his sympathies lie with those who see racial motives in nearly every white's actions, he is unfailingly kind to everyone the reader meets. Even Judge James A. Hare, who regaled Chestnut and visiting journalists, and protestors alike with his white supremacist theories of the tribal differences inherited by Selma's blacks, receives gentle treatment at Chestnut's hands.

For Chestnut, Selma's whites offer little variety. Wed to white supremacy in the years of Chestnut's youth and during the height of the civil-rights movement, they met the '80s largely still tied to maintaining white privilege.

Chestnut offers an incisive portrait of Selma's Joe Smitherman, who was mayor when marchers were beaten back over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and is Selma's mayor today.

Smitherman emerges as the complete politician, able to play on racial fears of the slight white majority. He gains a solid-bloc vote from whites, while delivering enough favors to blacks to guarantee the support of a minority of them, thus ensuring his reelection term after term.

Selma was the South's Pittsburgh in the Civil War, providing arms and ammunition to the Confederacy. Selma had been the commercial capital of the Alabama slave and cotton trade. The reputation won for Selma in this century by its cattle-prod-wielding Sheriff Jim Clark and his attacks on nonviolent demonstrators still rankles Selma's whites, who made scant effort at racial reconciliation then and make little more today.

Today, Chestnut's Selma is every American town where race remains a powerful if hidden issue in every public decision and where blacks and whites still lead segregated lives when the workday is done. In today's Selma, tracking in the schools is a substitute for yesterday's segregation, and ``qualifications'' is the cry raised when blacks want jobs whites have always held in obedience to an absolute racial quota.

Except for size and location, it could be New York or Boston.

Cass, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, provides a helpful historical introduction for each of the book's five sections.

The rest of the book is written in Chestnut's first-person voice, leaving the reader to wonder what contribution was made by the interviewees Cass lists in her acknowledgments.

J.L. Chestnut emerges from these pages as an honest, outspoken, and dedicated advocate of civil rights. He and his story are worth knowing, as we contemplate the yet unfinished struggle against racism that still engages millions across the United States.

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