Stunned by an ACLU article that described Chicago police brutality as declining under a new top cop, attorney George Leighton responded with a lengthy letter detailing allegations of beatings, torture and even a death at the hands of officers.
Leighton, then an NAACP leader, blasted the civil liberties group for its “complacency and naivete,” saying that unless “something was done about the plague in this community,” a “heartbreaking tragedy” would force the U.S. Justice Department to investigate wrongdoing by Chicago police.
More than five decades later, Leighton’s 1963 letter — in which he also noted that Chicago police had failed to respond to a single complaint of misconduct — seems prescient amid the Justice Department probe of the Chicago Police Department in the fallout over the fatal officer-involved shooting of Laquan McDonald.
But as Leighton, a giant in Chicago’s legal community, turns 104 on Saturday, he can note with pride that some things have changed — partly because of the path he broke during a career that spanned seven decades and included groundbreaking early civil rights work as well as lengthy stints on the bench at local, appellate and federal courts.
After making his name as a criminal defense attorney in the 1940s and ’50s, Leighton became one of the few African-American judges in Cook County in the 1960s. He went on to become the first black appointed to the Illinois Appellate Court, spent more than 10 years as a U.S. District Court judge and served as a mentor and inspiration to generations of Chicago attorneys — President Barack Obama included.
Cook County’s main criminal courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue — where he began his judicial career — has named in his honor in 2012.
“He’s a man who transcended everything — race, class, religion,” said his longtime friend, Judge William Bauer, 90, a senior judge on the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
It wasn’t easy.
Leighton arrived in Chicago as newly minted lawyer in 1946 at a time when African-Americans weren’t allowed to join bar associations or rent office space downtown. Five years later, he was indicted for conspiracy to incite a riot after violence broke out in Cicero when Leighton’s client, an African-American bus driver, attempted to move into an apartment.
The building was heavily damaged, and the National Guard was called in to quell unrest that lasted days. Thurgood Marshall, a good friend who later became the first African-American on the U.S. Supreme Court, traveled to Chicago to represent Leighton, who spent several days in jail before the charges were dismissed.
During the 1950s, Leighton also handled crucial cases on voting rights, school desegregation and the rights of African-Americans to serve on juries. He also represented Donald and Betsy Howard after riots broke out on the South Side when their family was allowed by the Chicago Housing Authority to move into the all-white Trumbull Park building.
Their lawsuit was eventually settled, and the CHA said it would stop discriminating against African-Americans.
Born to parents who immigrated to New Bedford, Mass., from the Cape Verde Islands and spoke little English, Leighton spent long stretches of his impoverished childhood laboring in cranberry bogs, crawling on his hands and knees to pull weeds from the mud.
His improbable dream of becoming a lawyer came to him as a teen working in those bogs, he later said.
The agricultural work kept him from school for months on end, and at age 17 — while still in seventh grade — he left to work on an oil tanker sailing to the Dutch West Indies. A voracious reader who picked up chess at age 12, Leighton never graduated from high school, but won a scholarship competition and was admitted in 1936, at age 24, to Howard University.
He excelled there, graduating with a history degree, and was accepted to Harvard Law School on a scholarship. In 1942, he was called into service in World War II, serving as an ROTC second lieutenant in the segregated 93rd Infantry Division. That same year he married his wife, Virginia, who died in 1992 shortly before their 50th anniversary. The couple had two daughters and five grandchildren.
Leighton was discharged in 1945 with the rank of captain, finished law school and passed the bar at age 34. He decided to move to Chicago, a city he had never visited and where knew no one, because it had elected an African-American attorney, William Dawson, to the U.S. House that same year, a former law partner said.
Dawson helped him join the city’s premier African-American law firm, where Leighton quickly built a reputation with his sharp legal mind, meticulous attention to detail — which extended to his perfectly pressed clothes and grooming — and work ethic.
“He was a tiger,” said U.S. District Judge Marvin Aspen, who has known Leighton for more than 50 years. “He’s bright, but there’s a lot of bright people around — he’s tenacious.”
Leighton retired from the federal bench in 1987 when he was 74 and joined the politically connected municipal law firm run by Langdon Neal, whose family roots in the city’s African-American legal community go back three generations.
Neal said one morning he arrived early to work but noticed the lights already on in his partner’s office. When Neal walked over to say good morning, he saw the judge, then in his late 70s or early 80s, face down on his office floor.
“I froze for a second,” said Neal, who then rushed to see if Leighton was still breathing.
“Before I could get over to him, he ripped off another 10 pushups,” said Neal, laughing. “He’d only been resting.”
That boundless energy continued well into his 90s when the then-retired judge would walk from his Loop condo at Washington and Wells streets to his law office, state and federal court and the Union League Club for lunch with friends. He always ordered a dry sherry at meals.
Still vibrant at 104, Leighton enjoys speaking to friends by phone and only recently gave up chess. He has difficulty hearing and uses a wheelchair to get around the Boston-area VA center where he lives, his family said.
A consummate storyteller himself, Leighton surrounded himself with mementos from his life — a well-worn Bible he read every day, cover-to-cover over and over; a chessboard that Leighton sometimes used to play himself; and a thin gold watch that was a gift from powerful Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana.
“That was immediate street cred,” Neal said of the watch.
The gift came after Leighton won a contempt citation in 1963 against the head of the FBI’s Chicago office. The special agent in charge had refused to testify in Giancana’s lawsuit, which alleged the FBI was intruding on his constitutional rights by having agents trail him around the clock. He was fined $500 after refusing to answer Leighton’s questions.
“I remember talking to the special agent in charge years later and he told me, ‘You know what? George was right,'” Judge Bauer said.
On his desk, Leighton kept a rock encased in plexiglass. He would tell visitors who asked about it the story of how, while working as a cook before being accepted into college, he had been peeling potatoes, when he reached for the next one but found it too hard to peel.
It took a moment to realize it was a rock and Leighton kept it as a reminder of how hard he had worked on his way up.
Young attorneys have long found Leighton a source of inspiration. Sharon Johnson Coleman, now a federal judge in Chicago, sought him out for advice when she was just a young lawyer thinking about running for a Cook County judicial slot.
“He was very encouraging,” she said.
Though she didn’t have Democratic Party support, Coleman still won the race and eventually followed in his footsteps to the state appellate court and federal court.
Coleman makes it a point to correct those who refer to Cook County’s criminal courthouse — as most people still do — as “26th and Cal.”
“He adds some class to a building that needs some,” she said
He touched off public uproar and sparked an effort to remove him from the bench in 1965 when, a year after being elected a 26th Street judge, he acquitted two Latino men of beating and slashing a Chicago cop. He refused to back down from his finding that white police officers had lied about what happened.
As a federal court judge, Leighton presided over the 1985 terrorism trial of four members of a Puerto Rican independence group who plotted to bomb two military training centers in Chicago.
He expelled five teens from court for making throat-cutting gestures toward a government witness and wearing T-shirts that together spelled out the Spanish word “chota” — meaning stool pigeon, the Tribune reported.
During that same trial, the judge, a longtime Chicago Chess Club member, was warned by federal agents that the terrorist group might try to assassinate him as he played at the North Avenue Beach chess pavilion, one of his favorite haunts.
“Chess was such an important part of his life that he disregarded that advice and continued to play there,” said attorney Jeffrey Colman, a longtime friend.
Leighton was an accomplished chess player who ranked as high as an “expert” and once defeated a Russian master at a Chicago tournament in 1982, according to a Chess Life profile.
One of Leighton’s chessboards now sits in an enclosed glass space near the entrance to the Leighton Criminal Court Building, a spot thousands of people walk past every day. Few know or appreciate its history.
“It’s so important in what’s happening in Chicago now — especially in the African-American community,” Neal said. “It’s so important to feature this history because you can’t solve today’s problems without understanding history and the historical context we all live today.”