The ABA and George N. Leighton have both come a long way during his 60 years as a lawyer.
Leighton recalls that, as a black, he was denied membership in the ABA after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1946.
Leighton went on to a distinguished career as a civil rights lawyer, judge and educator. The ABA broke its color barrier and has evolved into a leading voice for equal rights and diversity in the legal profession.
In August, the association will present its highest award, the ABA Medal, to Leighton during the 2005 annual meeting in Chicago, the city where he has spent most of his career.
“I feel very happy about being selected by what is one of the greatest legal organizations in the world–the American Bar Association,” says Leighton, who became a member in the 1950s and whose subsequent activities in the ABA included serving as chair of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.
The feeling is mutual, says ABA President Robert J. Grey Jr. of Richmond, Va., who–as the second African-American to head the association–is one of the generation of lawyers who built on the earlier efforts of Leighton and other black lawyers who helped pioneer the civil rights movement.
“It is an honor for the ABA to recognize this valiant champion of human dignity,” Grey said in announcing Leighton’s selection to receive the ABA Medal. (A list of recent ABA Medal recipients is available online at www. abanet.org/journal/abamedal.html.)
An Inspirational Impression
Leighton practiced civil rights and criminal defense law until he was elected in 1964 to the Cook County Circuit Court. He became an Illinois Appellate Court judge in 1969 and was appointed in 1976 to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
“To be able to go into a courtroom and appear before a black judge made an impression on me as a new black lawyer in Chicago,” recalls Sharon E. Jones. “By seeing him in that position we knew it was possible to aspire to that position and to achieve it.”
Now 92, Leighton is retired from the federal bench but still practices law in Chicago and teaches at John Marshall Law School.
Leighton is the son of itinerant farmers from the Cape Verde Islands, off the west coast of Africa, who migrated to New Bedford, Mass. He spent much of his childhood working beside his parents picking blueberries and cranberries in New England. His formal education never got past the seventh grade.
Leighton says it was in the cranberry bogs that he decided to become a lawyer.
“I didn’t know any lawyer. I had never met one,” he says. “I didn’t know what a lawyer did. I wasn’t related to one. At the time I was 14 or 15 years of age. The idea was so bizarre that I didn’t tell anyone about it, not even my mother or my father. But I never lost sight of that idea.”
Leighton eventually won conditional admission to Howard University in Washington, D.C. He graduated with honors and won a scholarship to Harvard. After graduating, he moved to Chicago.
At first, that must have seemed like a poor decision. At the time, the color lines were sharply drawn in Chicago.
Leighton became an expert at achieving desegregation in local neighborhoods and schools. In 1951 he was indicted on charges of inciting a riot when he represented a black family seeking to move into Cicero, then a notoriously segregated Chicago suburb. The indictment was eventually dismissed as many members of Chicago’s legal community rallied around Leighton.
It is a tribute to Leighton that he rose above the racism he encountered early in his career, says Thomas P. Sullivan, a former U.S. attorney in Chicago who nominated Leighton to receive the ABA Medal. “There’s nothing puffed up or put on about George Leighton,” Sullivan says. “He’s just his natural, wonderful self.”