Gainesville’s Charles S. Chestnut III died on Monday at age 83 after a lifetime of witnessing and making history within the civil rights movement.
Cynthia Moore Chestnut, his wife and a current city commissioner, said he had struggled with health problems following strokes but that she had expected him to return from the hospital.
Chestnut led Gainesville protests and sit-ins during the civil rights movement, later marching on Washington, D.C., with Martin Luther King Jr. He witnessed King’s “I have a dream” speech, and Cynthia Chestnut said King inspired Chestnut to continue the work locally.
Instilling in others a fight for justice, no matter the dismal surroundings, may have been his greatest achievement, Cynthia Chestnut said.
“In the end, justice prevails,” she said in a phone interview. “That was his firm belief.”
Chestnut attended the former all-Black Howard High School in Ocala, then Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach before obtaining a degree from the Eckels School of Mortuary Science in 1961. He returned to North Florida to work at the family business—Chestnut Funeral Home.
Chestnut served for 16 years as the first African American member of the School Board of Alachua County. Later, he sat on the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners from 1992 to 2000.
“He was very big on education, that’s why he enjoyed the school board so much,” Cynthia Chestnut said.
She said he wanted students to know and cherish their history.
Chestnut led the Alachua County NAACP Youth Council and worked toward equal access for public accommodations and voting rights.
Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward said Chestnut’s work set the platform on which many in North Florida and across the nation stand.
“Throughout his life, he continued speaking truth to power,” Ward said in a city release. “Unconquered here on earth, his legacy will continue to lift us up and his light will continue to shine.”
Chestnut was also a U.S. Army veteran and a member of Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church of Gainesville. He and Cynthia Chestnut married more than 40 years ago while doing a program called “Color Us Black” on WCJB.
Chestnut had six children. Two of his sons, Charles “Chuck” Chestnut IV and Chris Chestnut, work in the area. Chuck currently serves on the board of county commissioners, and Chris is a business owner and lawyer.
“He’s going to be dearly missed,” Cynthia Chestnut said. “He was a dear soul.”