The Cook County Criminal Court Building is being given a new name Friday in honor of a judge who never even graduated from grade school.
As the son of immigrants from islands off the African coast, George Leighton spent his childhood in Massachusetts picking berries to help his family. Despite having no education, he hitchhiked to Washington D.C. and talked his way into Howard University. He excelled, went to Harvard Law School and moved to Chicago in 1946 because he says he was impressed by the fact that Chicago had a black congressman, William Dawson.
At first Leighton had a hard time getting work, and he says he couldn’t even rent an office in Chicago’s loop at the time because of his race. He also ran into legal troubles of his own. After he advised some black clients that they could move to Cicero, riots erupted and he was indicted for being partially responsible. The future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall defended Leighton and the charges were thrown out.
Leighton established a legal career and in 1964 he got a call to run for judge.
“Now everyone who knew anything about Chicago in 1964 would know that for a lawyer to receive a phone call from Mayor Richard J. Daley, asking that lawyer will you be willing to be a candidate for judge, it was the same thing as that lawyer being elected by a landslide there and then,” Leighton said.
Leighton was the first black judge on the Illinois Appellate court and was appointed by President Gerald Ford to the federal court. Leighton is 99 years old and is expected to speak at a renaming ceremony this afternoon.