Chicago's “Conscience” Dies

Leon Despres dies at 101

Former Chicago alderman Leon Despres, described as the "conscience" of Chicago for continually being an opposing force to former Mayor Richard J. Daley, died Wednesday morning at his home in Hyde Park.

He was 101.

Despres was elected to serve Chicago's 5th ward in 1955 and spent 20 years standing up to Daley as an independent voice on the City Council. 

A lawyer and member of the American Civil Liberties Union, Despres was a strong advocate of civil rights, open housing, and racial and gender equality. Though there were six black alderman at the time, his work promoting integrated housing led the white, Jewish Hyde Park resident to be known as "the lone Negro on the City Council." 

He was also chairman of the Independent Voters of Illinois, the Chicago Tribune reported.

During a 2008 interview, Despres said his greatest accomplishment was advancing the discussion of segregation and discrimination in Chicago. 

"Raising that issue, dramatizing it, rallying people, giving them courage.  I think that general accomplishment is what I am most pleased with," he said

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Studs Terkel once called Despres "the North Star," a compliment the former alderman accepted.

"I like the North Star, because the North Star is what the fugitive slaves looked to when they were fleeing slavery and going north and heading for Canada and freedom.  I'm very flattered by (Studs Terkel) calling me a star," Despres said in 2008.

Despres wrote his memoir in 2005, entitled “Challenging the Daley Machine: A Chicago Alderman’s Memoir."

He was honored that same year by the University of Chicago when he received the Benton Medal for Distinguished Public Service

After retiring from the Council in 1975, Despres spent eight years as its parliamentarian, and 10 on the planning commission; he still ventures to his downtown law office to draft the occasional will, the New York Times reported in 2005.

Mayor Daley issued this statement on Despres' passing:

"The passion and spirit of Leon Despres have left a lasting mark on Chicago. In a public career of more than 50 years, he fought for what he believed was right for the city he loved. He was a major participant in the debate on every major issue Chicago has faced in the last half century and his strong voice made a great contribution to the way our city has evolved in that time. He was a great citizen whose commitment to Chicago serves as a model for us all."

WBEZ: 2003 Interview With Despres
Chicago Sun-Times: Remembering Leon Despres (Photo Gallery)
The Beachwood Reporter:  The (Thursday) Papers

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