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The Baltimore Sun


Civil rights lawyer in Alabama

J.L. Chestnut Jr., the first black lawyer in Selma, Ala., and a prominent attorney in civil rights cases across a half-century, died Tuesday morning at a Birmingham hospital of an infection after an operation.

A Selma native who earned his law degree at Howard University, Mr. Chestnut returned to his hometown in 1958 and became a key legal figure in the civil rights battles in Selma. Later he defended blacks in major voter fraud prosecutions and helped black farmers make financial claims against the U.S. Agriculture Department.

"He was really a giant as far as fighting for black voting and legal rights for half a century," said Julia Cass, a former journalist who co-wrote Mr. Chestnut's autobiography, Black In Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut Jr.

"He was just an indomitable advocate for black people, whether it was getting them to vote, getting them on juries, desegregating the schools, having a black Santa in the mall, getting black people to run for office. So over the course of his lifetime there's certainly no one more important in terms of black empowerment in Selma than J.L. Chestnut," she said.

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