University of South Alabama Trustee J. L. Chestnut Jr., age 77, of Selma, Ala., died Tuesday, Sept. 30 at a hospital in Birmingham. Chestnut was a prominent attorney in civil rights and the first African-American lawyer in Selma.
Visitation will be held at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 7 at the Selma Convention Center, 122 Washington St. The funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. on Oct. 8 at the First Baptist Church, 1509 Martin Luther King St. in Selma.
“J.L. Chestnut recognized the value of higher education and was dedicated to ensuring that high quality education was made available to all citizens,” said USA President Gordon Moulton. “He was a man of principle, conviction, and honesty. The Board of Trustees and the University of South Alabama will miss him dearly.”
Chestnut attended Dillard University in New Orleans, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Chestnut also served two years in the U.S. Army. After serving his country, he graduated in 1958 from Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C.
During his career, Chestnut was known for taking on legal cases of ordinary black men and women who were dealing with extraordinary situations. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went to Selma in 1965, Chestnut represented King in court hearings and handled the cases of hundreds of civil rights demonstrators. Later, Chestnut would become a pioneer for blacks in the legal field in Alabama, founding a law firm now known as Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders, Pettway & Campbell, where he devoted most of his life to criminal law. Chestnut was vice-chair of the Alabama Democratic Conference and a founder of the Alabama New South Coalition. He is also the co-author of his autobiography “Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut Jr.,” published in 1992.
Chestnut was appointed to a 12-year term on the USA Board of Trustees in May 2001 by then-Gov. Don Siegelman. During his tenure on the board, he served on the Academic and Student Affairs Committee and the Health Affairs Committee. He also served on the board of trustees at the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science.
He is survived by his wife, Vivian; three daughters; three sons; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.