LEON M. DESPRES (1908-2009)
“Throughout his career, he has been in the forefront of just about every decent, worthwhile effort made to improve life in this city.” — Mike Royko, 1972
The late Leon M. Despres, the founder of the firm, who died on May 6, 2009 at the age of 101, was a legendary Chicago lawyer and political leader. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1929. In 1934, Mr. Despres left the ranks of a large Chicago law firm to start his own general practice. Having his own practice allowed him the freedom to handle the labor and civil rights cases that he was passionate about during a critical period in the history of the American labor and civil rights movements.
In 1937, he began to represent Willard Saxby Townsend and the International Brotherhood of Red Caps, a fledgling union representing baggage handlers at railroad stations. From these beginnings, Mr. Despres built a stellar reputation as a labor and civil rights attorney at the forefront of social justice movements in Chicago that lasted until he retired in his 90s. He represented a great number of employee groups, became one of the most prominent and knowledgeable practitioners of real estate law relating to housing co-operatives, and served as counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1940s.
Mr. Despres was proudest of his work as a civil rights lawyer and as an alderman advocating open housing and opposing racial segregation. He was elected to the Chicago City Council in 1955, the same day that Richard J. Daley was elected mayor. For the next twenty years, Mr. Despres represented his constituency in the Fifth Ward, as well as the voices of many marginalized citizens across the city, with independence and zeal. He became famous for “fighting the Daley Machine” over civil rights and open housing, later recounted these experiences in a memoir by the same name published in 2005. His often solitary battles against the machine earned him the moniker “the liberal conscience of Chicago” and made him a legend in progressive circles in Chicago and in his lifelong home of Hyde Park.
In 2008, the Chicago Bar Association gave him the John Paul Stevens Award for his work as a lawyer and especially for his role in forcing the integration of the Chicago Bar Association in the 1940s. On June 26, 2009, the American Constitution Society gave him a posthumous award as a Chicago Legal Legend. He has received numerous other awards for his work as an independent politician and a lawyer.