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J.L. Chestnut, Civil Rights activist, on
Wallace the judge

J.L. Chestnut

Judge George Wallace was the most liberal judge that I had ever practiced law in front of. He was the first judge in Alabama to call me "Mister" in a courtroom. Really, in many courtrooms, I couldn't even sit inside the railing. I had to sit outside while the other lawyers sat inside. And when the judge called my case, my client and I got up and went before the judge. But that didn't happen in Judge Wallace's court. George Wallace said, "Mr. Chestnut," and I was almost shocked to hear that, it was so unusual. Also, Wallace was for the underdog. I was representing some poor black farmers who had been stripped of their cotton by a major cotton oil processor in Birmingham, and they sent down these high-priced lawyers and all that. And Wallace was sitting there looking at them, and I was sitting over at another table with my little clients in overalls and all of that. And these people looked down on us, these lawyers did. They wouldn't even refer to us as plaintiffs. They just said, "those people," with a good deal of scorn. And you could see Wallace getting tense over that and giving them the eye. And finally he said to them, "When you address Mr. Chestnut from now on, you will address him as Mr. Chestnut. You will refer to his clients as the plaintiffs. Do you understand?" And they understood. And Wallace ruled against them and ruled for me in every case. If I was asking for 100 dollars, I got 150 dollars. He was sitting without a jury. So Wallace was quite different from the rest of the judges at Alabama in 1957 and 1958.

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