NPR logo Leon Despres, Icon Of Chicago Politics, Dies


Leon Despres, Icon Of Chicago Politics, Dies

Former Chicago Alderman Leon Despres, known for standing up to the machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, when no one else would, died Wednesday in his home in the city's Hyde Park neighborhood. He was 101.

Despres' legacy includes leading the independent political coalition that eventually helped elect Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983, and some argue he helped pave the way for the election of the country's first black president, Barack Obama, who cut his political teeth in the same Chicago neighborhood.

Despres was first elected alderman from the liberal Hyde Park neighborhood on Chicago's South Side on the same day Chicagoans first elected Daley as mayor — April 5, 1955. The two clashed early and often throughout the next 20 years over issues such as fair housing, school segregation, racial and gender equity in city hiring, and other civil rights issues.

Often, he was ahead of his time. In 1958, he sponsored an ordinance that would have banned racial discrimination in private rental housing, a common precept of law today. The effort failed, and it would take federal law and court orders to try to end housing discrimination in Chicago.

In 1962, Despres tried to force the Chicago Fire Department to hire more minorities after learning just 200 of the 4,500 department employees were black. But minority hiring of firefighters didn't begin in significant numbers until the 1980s, and whites still make up nearly 70 percent of the fire department today, even though Chicago's population is less than 40 percent white.

In 1963, Despres tried to get the City Council to withhold tax funds from the city's school system until it ended racial segregation. Chicago schools didn't begin to desegregate until the 1980s, when ordered by the courts to do so, and to this day, most neighborhood schools are attended by students of only one race.

Despres' push for housing desegregation in the '60s made him known as "the lone Negro on the City Council," even though he was white. The six African-Americans on the council who supported Daley's policies were known as "the silent six."

Despres rose frequently in City Council meetings to object to unfair policies, the doling out of patronage jobs and contracts, and the greasy political maneuvers of Daley's Democratic machine. But he'd often have his microphone cut off midspeech, or be interrupted by a Daley ally with a point of order.

But Despres wasn't shy, calling Daley a dictator. He would lecture the mayor, "his finger wagging practically under Daley's nose, pouring out a dazzling array of statistics and studies and sociology and sheer guts," one City Hall reporter wrote in 1970.

Many of his colleagues, especially those who were in Daley's pocket, didn't hide their disdain for Despres. Late Alderman Vito Marzullo once called Despres "wholly irresponsible, a nitwit ... and a menace to the City Council and the public at large."

"Sit down before I knock you down," Daley's floor leader, late Alderman Thomas Keane, once threatened.

"Despres has been told to shut up — in one form or another — more than any grown man in Chicago," late Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko wrote in 1972. "Throughout his career, he has been in the forefront of just about every decent, worthwhile effort made to improve life in this city. Being in the forefront, he is usually the first to be hit on the head with the mayor's gavel."

Despres didn't wound easily, and he went on sharply criticizing Daley's machine, once characterizing it as the "tapeworm of Chicago," saying it fed on the city.

By the mid-1970s, Despres led a growing independent block of aldermen that challenged Daley and began to have some success on some issues. But Despres chose to step down from the Chicago City Council in 1975, even though 5,000 constituents signed petitions urging him to reconsider.

After Daley died in 1976, and his legendary machine began to splinter, the independent coalition Despres helped create and unite, made up of white lakefront liberals, young anti-war demonstrators and minorities emboldened by the civil rights movement, paved the way for the election of Washington in 1983.

A little over a decade later, in 1996, the remaining pieces of that coalition helped elect a young community organizer named Barack Obama to the Illinois Senate.

In a statement Wednesday, President Obama said, "Through two decades on the Chicago City Council and a long lifetime of activism, Len Despres was 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, and he lived every one of his 101 years with purpose and meaning. I have been blessed by his wise counsel and inspired by his example."