The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut Jr.

By J.L. Chestnut Jr. and Julia Cass

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 432 pp. $22.95

J.L. CHESTNUT Jr. was born nearly six decades ago in the Alabama city of Selma: early enough to have had full personal experience of the discrimination to which blacks in the Deep South were for generations subjected, late enough to have been a participant in and beneficiary of the startling changes the region has undergone since World War II. As his collaborator Julia Cass sees it, his life is "representative, spanning the Old South and the New South in a small Southern town that had played a crucial role in transforming American politics," but that isn't exactly accurate; in truth Chestnut is more exceptional than representative, which is precisely what gives his life's story energy and interest.

There is, to be sure, one sense in which Chestnut's story most certainly is exemplary: He is one of those innumerable Southern blacks who played valuable, often vital roles in the great battle for civil rights yet who were never recognized or celebrated very far beyond the boundaries of their immediate localities. Thus it is that just as Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters brought belated recognition to Vernon Johns and others, so too does Black in Selma honor the labors not merely of its author but also of the unknown men and women who worked alongside him. For that reason alone the book would be welcome; but that only scratches the surface of what this book is about.

Like the best of stories, Black in Selma is both particular and universal. On the one hand it is J.L. Chestnut's story and no one else's; on the other it is an account of how success is earned in America, with all the compromises and frustrations as well as triumphs this entails, and thus is yet another contribution to a vast and varied literature on that endlessly fascinating subject. By the same token, on the one hand it is a candid and occasionally gloomy depiction of how, in 1990 as in 1930, "everyone in Selma is warped by race in some way"; on the other hand it is testimony to how "we've gone beyond where I even dared imagine -- black people and white people."

Chestnut was born into Selma's black middle class, though in the Deep South in the Depression this scarcely meant that his parents were prosperous. Early on he became aware of "the significance of race" and developed a wariness toward whites, especially those in power, that to this day remains an important part of his psychological makeup. He had the good fortune to fall under the influence of a teacher who encouraged both his independence and his ambitions, and to find financial support that enabled him to attend first Dillard University in New Orleans and then Howard University Law School in Washington.

He arrived at Howard in the fall of 1953, just as the country's pre-eminent black lawyers were gathering there to prepare their arguments in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Those were great years for him, and when they ended he felt a powerful urge to stay in the North, presumably in Harlem; but "the rumblings of change were coming from the South," so in the end the pull of home was stronger. In the summer of 1958 Chestnut returned to Selma, to become the first black attorney there and the ninth in Alabama; it was the beginning of what is now more than three decades of vigorous activism in law and politics, on stage and behind the scenes.

Selma certainly was the right place to be. Not merely was it the site of the "Bloody Sunday" march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 that provided the much-publicized spark for the Voting Rights Act passed later that year; more significantly for Chestnut -- and for the internal drama of his memoir -- it was a Black Belt town in which all the racial, social, cultural and economic ills of that region came together in something approximating a perfect microcosm. Almost every day of his working life, Selma and the surrounding countryside provided Chestnut with small but meaty cases -- bigger ones, too, from time to time -- in which he was able to mount what was, when viewed as the sum of its parts, a concerted attack on de jure and de facto segregation in virtually all its forms.

His account of these contests is detailed and lively, and contains a rich lode of anecdotes, some of which are shocking and some of which are funny and some of which are a bit of both. To my taste the most engrossing of these involve Chestnut's relationship with James A. Hare, the circuit judge in whose court so many of his cases were tried. "Our relationship was peculiarly Southern," Chestnut writes, "and bursting with contradictions." The white judge "genuinely liked" the young black lawyer, so long as he remained in his place. Chestnut "didn't dislike Hare, though it would be misleading to say I liked him"; he respected the judge's "remarkable tenacity and intellect" even as he was appalled by his forthright views on race:

"Other white Southerners were indirect and often untruthful about their feelings. He and I never became angry with each other personally, though our positions and sometimes our words were confrontational. We had an unspoken understanding that we didn't want to fall out with each other. If he used me to ease his conscience, I used him to help my practice, my clients and the civil-rights movement. Hell, he was the judge. And our hours of conversation and debate gave me an invaluable, fascinating peep at the mindset of the white South and the power arrangements on the white side."

This keen awareness of power and its uses is essential to an understanding of Chestnut. He is by his own account, if not by his own exact words, a wheeler-dealer, an operator, as much sinner as saint. The self-portrait he paints herein is of a complex man who was outraged by injustice but who was also drawn to the fight because of the opportunities it offered for maneuver and intrigue, for playing the labyrinthine games of the powerful and those who seek to influence them. His willingness to reveal himself so honestly isn't merely admirable; it makes Black in Selma a better book than it would have been had he tried to portray himself as a pristine champion of the movement.

It also means that a good deal of the book, especially in its final couple of hundred pages, is taken up with elaborate accounts of local politicking in the years since 1965 when -- to borrow Chestnut's image -- blacks became players, if not owners, in Selma's ballgame; these stories will be of greater interest to readers in Alabama than to those elsewhere, though their cumulative effect is to provide a well-rounded view of how the public's business really gets done. But the reader can work his way through these passages speedily and agreeably; they are, after all, an important part of Chestnut's story, and if there's anything this book proves, it's that the story is worth telling.