Urging racial pride, civil rights veteran opens King tribute

January 28, 1991|By Rafael Alvarez

The Enoch Pratt Free Library launched its annual monthlong tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. over the weekend with a fierce lecture by J. L. Chestnut Jr., who demanded that African-Americans come together as a group to solve their own problems.

"Since slavery we have been taught to focus on ourselves individually, but never on the race," said Mr. Chestnut, a leader of the 1965 march on Selma and the author of a recent autobiography. "All my life I was told to be a credit to my race; not one person, black or white, ever said that my race was a credit to me."

From the perspective of a Deep South civil rights veteran just turned 60, Mr. Chestnut offered several obvious challenges for the black community -- get young males off the corner, teach kids that sex isn't love, and rid churches of preachers who ride around in limousines.

But the answer he wanted, the one he couldn't offer, was who would lead African-Americans through struggles peculiar to a new age, problems not as well-defined as segregation and the right to vote.

"Who will carry on the non-violent struggle?" he asked.

With no one immediately present to consolidate and carry all the current struggles of black America, if such a thing is even possible, Mr. Chestnut called on his people to think in terms of "we, not I."

During his early work with Dr. King, Mr. Chestnut said he despaired to the point of losing faith in the human race.

As the only black attorney in Selma, Ala. in the early 1960s, Mr. Chestnut helped Dr. King fight battles for equality -- highlighted by the bloody march on Selma -- that changed the history of U.S. civil rights.

Along the way, Mr. Chestnut said in the Pratt's Wheeler Auditorium on Saturday afternoon, he lost all faith and hope in his country and lived to regain it.

On March 7, 1965, as a 34-year-old lawyer recruited by Dr. King, Mr. Chestnut watched as a small band of black marchers from Selma was beaten and clubbed by Alabama state troopers as the protesters tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

"It was on that day that I lost all faith in America and I lost all faith in white people," he said. "I didn't think America could be saved, and I didn't think that white people were worth saving. I left the bridge crying.

"But white and black people across America who saw this on television came to Selma by the hundreds, ready to die, ready to go to jail. Hundreds came to my little Selma, ready to march on it, and it restored my faith in America, it restored my faith in the human race. Today I think I, the great-grandson of a slave, have more faith in America than some white folks I know."

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