George Leighton, pioneering African-American judge, lawyer turns 104 – Chicago Tribune

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.

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.”

sschmadeke@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @SteveSchmadeke

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