Standing Up to Racism in the South

For more than 40 years, my dear wife has kept enough news clippings about me and columns written by me that would fill a book. We may do the book one day. Saturday, she was working with columns written in 1985, 20 years ago, that were published each Sunday morning in the Selma Times-Journal. One column caught my eye.

I reprint it below because last Friday a caller on my radio show seemed to have forgotten how far we have come and the difficult obstacles we faced. That attitude can dampen our future. The caller was so dispirited he even claimed that Mayor Perkins (the first black Mayor of Selma, Alabama) has not achieved anything. That is 100% wrong, and spits in the face of solid achievements and ignores huge sacrifices.

Now, this old column of mine below is not so much about politics but about what we faced in 1985, and what I had faced in particular and how we managed. It also addresses some of the costs. Mayor Perkins and a predominantly black city council did not drop magically out of nowhere. They were born slowly and through of sacrifice, and even today they often face more than their white predecessors, plus they are black in Alabama. It is important that we be fair to ourselves and to them and judge it all in proper context.

Here’s the column, I have assumed some editorial license to shorten and make the piece more succinct. Remember I didn’t write these words 40 years ago in 1960 but 1985 just 20 short years ago.almost yesterday!

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Yesterday, a black female friend and high school teacher, said, “Ah yes, J.L., you can afford to antagonize influential white people because you are not vulnerable like the rest of us and you don’t have to face our burdens. ” I thought how wrong those claims. Perceptions about someone else’s “green grass” are almost always exaggerated, but people, blacks included, wallow in these fairytales.

No person in Alabama is watched closer than I. No lawyer is called before the bar association as often “to show cause” or explain his actions. Most of the complaints wouldn’t have been filed if I were a white person or even a different type black person. I catch hell for what whites and even some blacks do with both immunity and impunity.

I probably receive more hate mail than other people receive ordinary mail. The hate mail is wrapped in plain brown paper; no return address, studded with threats; racial slurs and some envelopes contain bullets. I have accumulated enough ammunition to donate to the armory. The FBI, the Alabama Bureau of Investigation and other agencies maintain active files on me and for years have been concerned in what I, supposedly a free American citizen, say and do. Naturally, I am just as interested in them. The distrust is completely mutual.

The glass in my office window has been shattered with pistol shots more than twice. The putrid entrails of dead animals were spread in front of my home in the dark of night and my automobile splattered with eggs in front of courthouse. On two occasions white policemen, I wouldn’t trust with my wife’s cat, came to my home in the middle of the night with reports alleged bomb threats that didn’t materialized. We change our unlisted telephone number every several months.

Why is all this going on in 1985, 20 years after the voting rights law? It goes on because a dangerous conspiracy of powerful people is in place against the few black men in the South who speak out. The conspiracy is racial and unlike the Mafia, these conspirators seek much more than money. They seek to restrict an already flawed democracy exclusively unto themselves and their kind, and in that effort, conspire daily against the institutions and the nation they profess to love.

There ought to be things men will not do for money and power, but I can’t think of any. I once naively believed the human instinct for love, justice and right would be sufficient, but malice, avarice, greed and racism seem to have a greater hold. Almost daily, I watch from inside courthouses and statehouses as powerful men take the law into their own polluted hands, buy legislatures (even the congress) and enact private evils into public law. These men, these conspirators have murdered and even had wars declared to maintain their power.

And, they deal with black people generally and black men like me in particular in a variety of ways. Their methods include fear, economic sanctions, embarrassment, lies, propaganda, isolation and even ridicule. If these fail, then violence can and sometimes will be invoked. In Selma, the conspirators use an uneducated, fairly ignorant and racist police department to control black Selma primarily through fear.

That, black folks, is where blacks generally stand in this town in 1985, and where I, an outspoken black lawyer stands. Most Selma blacks, however, are only vulnerable in terms of a job and money, and white people in Selma do not really see black teachers as a threat. My teacher friend’s remark only concerned her job, a white school superintendent and white dominated school board. No one has shot into her home or office, and she has not needed a deputy sheriff to guard her as she performed her job. I am thankful, that she doesn’t have to anticipate such.

And, my hope is that as she reads this column Sunday morning before church and over a cup of hot coffee, she will understand the vulnerabilities and sacrifices of people like me, and realize we understand her own and people like her and that is one reason we sacrifice. Otherwise, we blacks in Selma would be stuck forever in 1985, and with a predominantly white city hall, a white controlled courthouse and injustice.

Help is on the way! I see it. Look about you. We are not nearly as bad off as in 1960, and the future is even more than bright if we will just hold out, stand up and be counted.


J.L. CHESTNUT, Jr. is a civil rights attorney in Selma, Alabama. He is the founder of Chestnut, Sanders and Sanders which is the largest black law firm in Alabama. Born in Selma and, after graduating from Howard University Law School, he began practicing law in Selma in 1958. He started as the only black lawyer in the town and has been challenging the establishment since then. His law firm now owns two radio stations in Selma and Mr. Chestnut hosts a radio talk show three days a week touted as the most popular radio show in south and central Alabama. He is the author of “Black in Selma” with Jjulia Cass (1989 ­ Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and he writes a weekly column called the “Hard Cold Truth”. He can be reached at