Good afternoon. I’d like to extend my appreciation to ISBA President John O’Brien for having the vision to sponsor our program today and to Alice Noble-Allgire for making it happen.
ISBA Diversity Leadership Award
Alice asked me to say a few words about the ISBA Diversity Leadership Award. The award, approved earlier this year by the Board of Governors, was one of the recommendations made by the ISBA Task Force on Diversity in 2008. This award recognizes long-standing, continuing and exceptional commitment by an individual to the critical importance of diversity within the Illinois legal community, its judiciary and/or within the ISBA. The Diversity Leadership Council unanimously agreed upon its first recipient. I can think of no more deserving individual to receive our first award than today’s honoree, the Honorable George N. Leighton.
Judge Leighton’s Background/Career Highlights
I met Judge Leighton in 1999 when he visited Jenner & Block to speak to our summer law clerks. After hearing him speak, I recall thinking to myself that his life story, as well as his legal career accomplishments to date, were simply put—remarkable. I trust Judge Leighton will share some of his favorite stories with us but I wanted to provide each of you with some insight into his background and legal career (A special thanks to my partner Jerry Solovy and the IL Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission for helping me with these comments.):
• Born on October 22, 1912 to parents that immigrated from Cape Verde to New Bedford, MA;
• His parents were farm workers in the cranberry and strawberry bogs in MA and from an early age, Judge Leighton assisted his parents with this work.
• By age 17, he had only reached the 7th grade since he could only attend school a few months a year. At this point, he took a position as a cook’s assistant on a steamer and traveled around the world.
• In 1936, he entered an essay contest and won a $200 scholarship to attend college. Even though he had not completed grade school, he talked his way into Howard University as a provisional student graduating in 1940 magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.
• In 1940, he entered Harvard Law School graduating in 1946 following service in WWII as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army where he fought in the South Pacific with the 92nd Division—an all African American Unit and was discharged as a Captain in 1945.
• Judge Leighton began his practice in Illinois. In 1951, he advised an African American couple that they could live in Cicero by virtue of the lease they signed. This resulted in a riot with the apartment building being burned down. Judge Leighton was indicted for inciting a riot. When asked by the Grand Jury why he had the temerity to advise an African American couple that they could live in Cicero, his response was simple—the Constitution said so. Defended by his colleague, Thurgood Marshall and others from the Chicago legal community, these charges were eventually dropped.
• Judge Leighton has served on the Circuit Court of Cook County, the Illinois Appellate Court and in 1975 was appointed by President Ford to the Federal District Court in Chicago, where he retired in 1987, and then joined the law practice at Earl & Leroy where he continues today.
Judge Leighton has received numerous awards and other much-deserved recognition for his many achievements including:
1. Having the New Bedford, MA post office named after him; and,
2. Earlier this year, receiving the first ever award from the IL Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission for a career full of significant achievements—appropriately named for all time now “The Honorable George Leighton Justice Award.”
I have the utmost respect and admiration for Judge Leighton as an individual, a lawyer, a judge and a civil rights leader. Our profession is better because he is one of us. It is my pleasure to introduce ISBA President John O’Brien to present Judge Leighton with the first ISBA Diversity Leadership Award. ■