The loss of living legend

Published 5:25 pm Wednesday, October 8, 2008

He was a legend in his own time. He was bigger than life in so many ways. I shared his life for 37 years. He was my law partner and, more importantly, my friend. He was J.L. Chestnut, Jr.

When I first met J.L., the first thing I noticed was his voice. It was a big voice. A strong voice. A lifting voice. It was bigger than life, especially coming from a 5 foot-5 inch, 127 pound man. The second thing was his words. His pronunciations were precise. The words and sentences flowed. There were no ums or ahs or pauses. He was a legend with the spoken word.

J.L. Chestnut was more than fair; he was very generous. Before we were law partners, he would take me with him to try criminal cases to which he’d been appointed. He insisted on giving me half the attorneys’ fees in spite of the fact that I did nothing but learn from him. J.L. Chestnut would give his last to others and then scuffle to find money to feed and pay rent and bills for his wife, six children and one grandchild. He never turned down a case because of money and usually failed to collect the fees he did charge. He was a legend in his generosity.

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When I first proposed a law partnership, J.L. refused. He said he had a serious problem that he would not put on me. He said we would become partners when he handled the problem. Eight months later he said, “Hank, I’ve licked my problem.” That began a 37-year partnership between him, Rose and me. People still marvel at how he quit drinking cold turkey and never took another drink.

J.L. truly loved publicity. We all knew it but did not hold it against him because he owned up to it. He would say to me, “Hank, I just enjoy publicity.” Wherever he went, he soon became the center of attention with his stories and humor. He loved every minute of his wildly popular radio program, “A Public Conversation.” After the program, he would listen to the recording over and over again.

J.L. Chestnut had a gift for lifting people. He did it with stories, with understanding, and with teasing. He teased everybody. He knew how to make people feel good about themselves no matter how high and mighty or low and powerless.

He especially made women feel good by openly flirting. When he flirted, we knew and the women knew that was just J.L. One time J.L. was flirting hard with a woman, and Rose tried to stop him. The woman immediately said, “Rose, you leave J.L. alone!”

J.L. had a gift for making outrageous and controversial statements. Still people did not hold it against him. I believe people were so receptive because there was always an undertone of joy in his words. In court, he could get away with saying things other lawyers could not say. Even judges would say, “That’s just J.L.”

J.L. was a gifted communicator. He communicated extremely well with one person or several persons or 12 persons or hundreds or thousands. He wrote as well as he spoke. People loved his column, “The Hard Cold Truth” and his autobiography, “Black in Selma.”

J.L. Chestnut was most persuasive. I remember the time he and I were trying a case in Hale County. After the jury returned the biggest verdict in the history of Hale County up to that time, Bernard Harwood, who later became a Supreme Court Justice, said to me, “Hank, I knew I was in trouble when I found myself agreeing with J.L. over and over in his closing argument.” J.L. was legendary for his persuasiveness.

J.L. was a truly gifted trial lawyer. His cross examinations and closing arguments were something to see. I once went with him when he did not know the client’s name or what he was charged with before he arrived in court. Still he expertly cross examined each witness and made a powerful closing argument. When I suggested that we put the client on the stand, he said, “No Hank. The jury will be back with a not guilty verdict in 30 minutes.” The jury came back in 20 minutes with a not guilty verdict. He was a legendary trial lawyer.

Over his nearly 50-year legal career, he handled some huge cases. There are so many, but I will mention just two: (1) the Black Farmers case where he helped Black Farmers discriminated against by the U.S. Government to receive more than $1 billion; and (2) The Black Belt Eight cases, where the U.S. Government wrongly charged black voting rights activists with voter fraud, and the jury found them not guilty on all 212 counts. In 2003, Black Enterprise Magazine declared J.L. Chestnut one of the 10 greatest black legal legends along with Thurgood Marshall and others. He was truly a legend in his own time.

He lived his life fully, joyfully and productively. We are all the better because a legend in his own time came this way, touching our lives profoundly.

Hank Sanders is a state senator serving Marengo County.