The Cold Hard Truth

The Cold Hard Truth

By J.L. Chestnut, Jr.

Vol. 10, No. 3, 1988, p. 24

Phillip Henry Pitts is one helluva trial lawyer. The man is skilled, creative and deadly spontaneous. I have been aware of Henry’s trial abilities for years. He and I have battled almost from the day he was admitted to the Bar.

When Henry first joined his father’s law firm, the elder Pitts and I were locked in monumental legal struggles all over the Black Belt. I was trying to change every at-large elected government in the area. McLean Pitts was determined nothing would or should ever change. He was an unabashed segregationist and bragged about it.

McLean Pitts was a large, determined and physically powerful man whose influence permeated the Black Belt and reached into the State Capitol in Montgomery. In the early years Henry was a minor player but as much a segregationist as his father. In many ways, however, Henry was the classic example of the “good old boy.” His father would never have been mistaken for such.

In 1965, just before the tragic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a young Henry Pitts was assigned the difficult task of cross-examining Martin Luther King Jr. in federal court in Montgomery. That is one measure of what the elder Pitts thought of his son’s trial skills. Henry’s risk-taking style and spontaneous insights served him well. Both King and I were amused but wary of this brash, young segregationist.

Years later in a case where I was the opposing counsel, an older but still brash and risk-taking Henry Pitts said the following to a Perry County jury of eleven blacks and one white: “J. L. is not one of you. He is an outsider who teaches at Harvard. He is only interested in money and more money. My father and I have been coming over here for years protecting your interests. In the name of Martin Luther King, the Good Holy Book and all that is fair, don’t give J.L. and his client one red cent in damages. They don’t deserve it.”

I followed with the observation that Henry Pitts calling on the name of Martin Luther King was akin to my invoking the Confederate memory of Robert E. Lee. The jury returned a verdict of $75,000 against Henry’s client. Before the trial started, I had offered to settle the case with Henry for $75,000. The lone white juror later claimed she had been coerced by the eleven black jurors.

Henry later sent a check for the judgment and said, “You caught hell earning it!” Indeed, I had.

Like many white Southerners, Henry and his father were close to several blacks who worked for them for years. Walter Chambers, who is quite a character himself in black Selma, grew up following Henry around. It tickles the hell out of me that Walter calls Henry’s wife “Sister” because that is what Henry and everyone else calls her, but Walter always says “Mr. Henry.”

One day recently, Henry and I had to go by the District Attorney’s office. Henry gave Walter his briefcase and told him to take it over to the office. Walter grabbed my briefcase and carried it along also. He had a big grin on his face. He understood and I understood. Even Henry understood.

Over the years, Henry’s thinking has evolved in the manner the South is evolving. He remains Southern, proud of it, but more open-minded. He has been a television producer, business agent and lawyer for a superstar football player. He has negotiated for, socialized with and knows personally a number of major figures in American life.

Yet he remains essentially a “good old boy.” More importantly, he is one of the better trial lawyers anywhere.

I look forward to working with him again. I do not look forward to working against him.


J.L. Chestnut, Jr., is an Alabama trial lawyer and writer.