No recounting of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march is credible without listing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Joseph Lowery, Bernard LaFayette, John Lewis, James Foreman and Dick Gregory. All seven were jailed in Alabama fighting for African-American voter empowerment.
They each had something else in common. Attorney J.L. (that was his given name) Chestnut Jr., who died Sept. 30 at the age of 77, represented them all. Unlike some lawyers who sought to be more famous, J.L. was content working behind the scenes to eradicate an unfair system that was the source of much discontent.
Instead of settling in the North, where he could have avoided de jure discrimination, J.L. decided to set up shop in his hometown, Selma. After the success of the Selma-to-Montgomery march that led to passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act in 1965, J.L. dedicated his life to making sure that the promises of the civil rights movement were realized.
He once told writer Gay Talese about the time a white judge warned him about disrespecting women on his all-white staff. J.L. retorted, "I have never been disrespectful of a lady in my life, and unlike you, I also respect black women." The legendary barrister always demanded respect for his clients as well as respect for himself.
The "democracy" conceived by our Founding Fathers was limited; they only included white males and landowners. J.L., however, was the founding father of modern "King" democracy. It gives hope that no one--be they people of color, women or 18-year-olds--be limited by race, gender, age or religion.
J.L.'s life was full, his life was fulfilled, and his legacy is now in full bloom. Many today stand on his shoulders.
Jackson is a civil rights activist and leader of the RainbowPUSH Coalition