Today’s post is in honor of Leon Despres.
The late, great 5th Ward alderman and ardent opponent of the Richard J. Daley-era machine died last week at his home in Hyde Park, where he had lived since he was just a baby.
He was 101.
Despres’ term in the City Council coincided nearly exactly with Daley; both men arrived to their respective positions in 1955 and stayed there for the next two decades. Both loved their city. And both were dedicated to serving it in the way they thought was right and worked best.
There the similarities ended.
Many, many times Despres was on the losing end of 49-1 votes.
His persistent advocacy of civil rights and open housing during a time when Chicago was even more segregated than it is now earned him the moniker, “the sole Negro on the City Council.” This title came even when there actually were black councilmen who were part of what many called “plantation politics.”
Despres’ persistence was even more impressive, given the constant badgering, hectoring, yelling and outright abuse he endured at the hands of Daley’s minions.
When the old man did not like what Despres had to say, he would simply have his microphone shut off. Any effort to launch a proposal would be instantly countered by a Daley supporter making a parliamentary counter move that Daley invariably approved.
Still, Despres persisted.
I had the privilege of meeting Despres in 2006, when I was working on a four-part series for The Chicago Reporter about Dr. King’s 1966 campaign in Chicago and where the city stood on the same issues King and members of the Chicago Freedom Movement worked to address.
Then 98, Despres was no longer able to do his customary swim and his beloved wife Marian’s health was failing.
His mind was still razor-sharp, though.
We spent a pleasant couple of hours in his apartment on the 5800 block of Stony Island Avenue, sharing tea and cookies as we overlooked the Museum of Science and Industry standing against the magestic blue of Lake Michigan he had first seen nearly a century earlier.
Despres told me that he learned to make his proposals-90 seconds was best, he said, two minutes was the outer limits-before Daley’s supporters could turn off his microphone.
I asked him if he ever got discouraged by encountering such stiff opposition.
He did, he said. But then he thought about how he had felt after the times when he should have spoken up and instead was silent.
That memory kept him going.
And, eventually, in many ways, he won.
While Richard M. Daley soon will have been in power for longer than his father, and while reports of city council independence, are, like reports of Mark Twain’s death, greatly exaggerated, many of the proposals for which Despres fought so long and so valiantly have come to pass in Chicago.
And, of course, the nation last November elected its first black president, who lived in the very same Hyde Park neighborhood in which Despres was raised, lived, loved so dearly and died.
For those who want to learn more about this often lonely hero, I recommend reading Challenging the Daley Machine: A Chicago Alderman’s Memoir, Despres’ account of his procedural adventures and public service. An accessible and inspiring work, this slender book takes the reader through Despres’ early years, recollections of his struggles with the machine and thoughts about the city and the nation’s future.
He will be missed.
Do you have any Leon Despres stories?
Who inspires you through their persistence in the face of adversity?
How much has Chicago changed since the days of the Democratic machine?