May 12, 2009

Leon Despres, Chicago alderman and civil rights activist with University ties, dead at 101

Leon Despres (A.B. '27, J.D. '29), former Fifth-Ward alderman, civil rights advocate, and University professor, died of heart failure Wednesday in his Hyde Park home. He was 101 years old.

In a statement, President Obama deemed him “an indomitable champion for justice and reform. With an incisive mind, rapier wit and unstinting courage, he waged legendary battles against the corruption and discrimination that blighted our city.”

Despres was born in Chicago in 1908, where he attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Deeply influenced by the University, he graduated from the College in 1927 after studying for two years in Europe, and entered the law school immediately afterwards, graduating in 1929. He also taught at the University, which his two children attended, and where his wife, Marian Alschuler, obtained her doctoral degree.

Despres began practicing law in 1929, representing labor unions. As a member of the Socialist Party, Despres's politics frequently pitted him against the city authorities in his cases: he once represented the American Civil Liberties Union in organizing a production of a play by Jean-Paul Sartre that the Chicago police had banned for immorality.

Despres was elected to the Chicago City Council in 1955 as an independent, and served as alderman until 1975. Mayor Richard J. Daley and Despres were elected the same day, and Despres was one of the few aldermen to confront Daley. It was not unusual for Despres' microphone to be turned off during City Council meetings in order to silence him and allow a Daley ally to intervene.

“Because he’d taken voice lessons, Daley would turn off his mike and he’d still be able to be heard,” Despres' daughter Linda Baskin said.

Despres also fought for racial equality. He tried to end restrictive covenants, legal measures used to keep blacks out of white areas, including Hyde Park. In 1958 he sponsored an ordinance to ban discrimination based on race in rental housing. The ordinance failed, and would not come into law until much later. However, according to Baskin, “he worked to get equal housing for everyone regardless of color, race, or religion, everybody, he didn’t care.”

Although Despres was ahead of his time on racial equality, he was steadfast in his idealism. He was shot twice in the leg by two men while walking home in 1967, but refused to blame his attackers, believing the crime was a result of social conditions.

In 1962, he attempted to require the Chicago Fire Department to hire a greater proportion of minorities; nearly 70 percent of the fire department remains white today. In 1963, Despres tried to make the City Council withhold tax funds from the school system until it stopped racial segregation, a process that did not officially begin until the 1980s.

Despres decided to step down from the City Council in 1975, despite the 5,000 constituents who signed petitions to convince him to run for re-election because he was so beloved by the community he served.

He was the eighth person to receive the Benton Medal from the University of Chicago. Upon receiving the honor he said, “this is like a confirmation of a long and valuable relationship.”

Despres kept an office at the Chicago law firm Despres, Schwartz, and Geoghegan until a few years before his death. In 2005 he wrote Challenging the Daley Machine: A Chicago Alderman’s Memoir, a first-person account of Chicago corruption. Last year he wrote an online diary for Slate where he discussed Woodlawn as a possible location for an Obama presidential library and expressed a wish to knock on doors for Obama during the election.

Despres is survived by his son, Robert, his daughter, Linda Baskin, and his grandson.