“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, Jr.”
~ Julia Cass, author and journalist
J.L Chestnut, Jr. was born on December 16, 1930 in Selma, Alabama. According to his autobiography, Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut, Jr., co-authored with Julia Cass, the initials were his actual name. His father, J.L. Sr., was given the name by his mother who named him after a White banker who she had admired. J.L. Sr. co-owned a grocery with his two brothers and his wife worked as an elementary school teacher.
An accomplished student, he attended segregated schools in Selma. The obvious disparity of resources available to those of White students and lack of opportunities afforded J.L. Jr. and other Blacks infuriated him. According to his account, he was encouraged by a childhood mentor, John F. Shields, to enter the field of law in order to combat these inequities.