J. L. Chestnut Jr.

Black in Selma

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Black in Selma Summary

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Black in Selma is the autobiography of J.L. Chestnut Jr., a fundamental figure in the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama. Chestnut was born in Selma in 1930 and left home for Washington D.C. to attend law school at Howard University, becoming Selma’s first African American attorney.

Growing up in Selma, Chestnut writes that race was never a topic that needed to be discussed; rather it was something that was inherently understood from a very young age. Until he was a teenager, Chestnut was surrounded by poverty and black bootleg joints, making his place in the world very clear. The most brutal demonstration of racial disparity that he witnessed took the form of police brutality, which made the power imbalance all too obvious, as well as the powerlessness of black leaders of the era to put a stop to it.

Chestnut’s first mentor in the community was John F. Shields, a schoolteacher who kept to himself and was kind of an outsider. Chestnut remembers him as prolific for his time, as he would talk about how the entire black race had to come together to initiate systemic change. Shields was Chestnut’s first inspiration to go to law school, as he told him to go off and become a lawyer so that he could fight the system.

As soon as he was old enough, that’s exactly what Chestnut did. He left the familiar confines of Selma and headed to Washington D.C. to attend Howard University. He returned to Selma in 1958 with a law degree and a determination to make sweeping changes. He made it his mission to defend African American cases, especially ones with what he called a racial angle. He spent his time defending black convicts in the courtroom and rescuing them from the clutches of the Ku Klux Klan.

Although Chestnut firmly believed in the work he was doing, he often felt depressed and hopeless in his lonely battle, declaring in the early 1960s that he felt that white power was invincible. He drank to soothe his sorrows, eventually sinking so low in his alcoholism that he was picked up by the police, and he asked them to bring him to jail rather than back to his father’s home because he felt that he could face the jail cell more easily than his own father.
Sometimes upon waking, he would rail against the police officer, stating his constitutional rights, and they would have to explain to him that he hadn’t actually been arrested and that his cell wasn’t even locked, which embarrassed him terribly.

Chestnut found inspiration and the strength to persevere in observing other black lawyers, namely Peter Hall, whom Chestnut describes as an aggressive and arrogant man who was quoted as saying that all people are beneath him. He seemed exempt from the restrictions around race, not being treated as a black man or a white man but as though he were of a third race, one that only he was a part of. Determined to change the system, Hall was less interested in the individuals on trial than the flawed nature of the justice system itself.

Chestnut also writes about Judge James A. Hare who had his own motivations within the courtroom. He was willing to twist the law in any way necessary to maintain segregation and the Southern way of life. Although he was certainly a racist, he liked Chestnut and often favored certain black people over what he described as “white trash.”

Eventually, integration did come to Selma; Chestnut describes the historic marches led by prominent civil rights leaders. Although law no longer enforced segregation, Chestnut writes that it was only at that point that the real work could begin. The real work being black empowerment, the building of black businesses, and getting black people into high-level government bodies. Essentially, integration opened the doors for a realm of possibilities for African Americans, but it by no means eliminated prejudice and racism. It would still be an uphill battle for black people to have the same comforts in life as the average white person; that wasn’t about to change any time soon. The true revolution had to come through people’s ways of thinking, which would take a lot more work.

Still, Chestnut writes that the movement empowered young black people in Selma to act. They didn’t have jobs or mortgages, nor did they have access to the white power structure. It was necessary for this generation to rebel against their parents, their teachers, all of those who came before them. Chestnut states that although there was some negative fallout from these actions, it was necessary for the progression of African Americans as a group. These young people embodied the anger of their generation, and for generations before them.