Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Deep Down South

By Dorothy Cole

MARCH 20, 2000: 

Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J. L. Chestnut Jr.: Politics and Power in a Small American City by J. L. Chestnut Jr. and Julia Cass (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), paper, $15

I've never subscribed to the philosophy of history that construes progress primarily in the actions and choices of a few dominant (usually male) characters. It can be extremely enlightening, however, to view significant historical events through the eyes of the people involved. The best historical biographies combine snapshots of one character's personal experiences with allusions to the larger context. This is that kind of book.

J. L. Chestnut Jr., was the first African American to practice law in Selma, Ala. He admits from the outset that he always wanted to be an important man. His interest in civil rights was a natural outgrowth of his frustration with the limitations put on the lives and choices of his parents' generation. While he is critical of earlier black leaders who worked to accommodate the white power structure, he is surprisingly sympathetic to their fears. The situation they faced was the system he grew up under.

Chestnut is a good storyteller, and he has a lot to tell. His description of the life and exploits of a bright, well-educated black individual in the second half of this century is eye-opening, not because segregation presents any great mystery, but because the events in this book are still so recent. He shows some reluctance in making himself the focal point, and he spells out the reason why. If Chestnut has one lesson he wants understood, it is that members of oppressed groups have to rise together if any of them are going to rise at all. His own parents were well-educated and, within the tight constraints of their society, successful. That didn't prevent them from being ripped off and exploited at every turn by the white establishment. Only by uniting their individual interests with those of black sharecroppers and the poor whites who also suffered under the rules and values of segregated Alabama were their son and his contemporaries able to make progress.

Even if he hadn't been a player in a famous chapter of the American civil rights struggle, Chestnut's life story would be fun to read. The man has done a lot. Not every project he took on was successful, but he doesn't waste time looking for blame. Biographies get boring as the protagonist grows up and achieves success. This story doesn't have that problem; there are still too many things not settled. Along the way, Chestnut manages, as if in passing, some truly illuminating observations. He comments on how the younger generation, in learning not to show respect to individuals and institutions that didn't deserve it, may have lost hold of the whole concept of respect.

His discussion of what was lost in the Democratic party's jumping too soon to support a single candidate in 1984 could be highly instructive in this year's primary. The question at the time shouldn't have been whether Jesse Jackson could be elected president, Chestnut insists gently, but where and how black voting strength could send the strongest message. It's no accident that the title places Selma as an American -- not just a Southern -- city.

It may be a little late to assign reading material for Black History Month (or early if you're planning for 2001), but this book would make a good addition to any such list. It's fun to read, and it clarifies issues that every American should understand.


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