Leon Despres, the former Chicago Alderman described as the "absolute conscience of the city" for his dedicated activism and consistent opposition to Mayor Richard J. Daley, has died. He was 101.
Despres died Wednesday morning, according to Chicago Public Radio, which first reported the news.
Elected as the 5th Ward Alderman in 1955, Despres spent the next 20 years locking horns with the first Mayor Daley as the lone consistently independent voice on the City Council. His work on behalf of organized labor, racial and gender equality issues and especially integrated housing led the white, Jewish Hyde Park resident to be known as "the lone Negro on the City Council."
After retiring from the City Council in 1975, Despres served as its parliamentarian during the Jane Byrne and Harold Washington administrations. He remained active in social justice issues and continued to practice civil rights, labor and estate law at his firm, Despres, Schwartz & Geoghegan.
In 2005, Despres published the memoir Challenging the Daley Machine: A Chicago Alderman's Memoir.
Despres never shed his engagement with Chicago life. In February he endorsed Tom Geoghegan, his law partner, for Congress and in a series of Slate diaries published in September, Despres wrote about visiting Devon Avenue for Indian food and wishing he could knock on doors for Obama's presidential campaign.
(Listen to Geoghegan and former Alderman Dick Simpson talk about Despres here.)
In an July 4th, 2008 speech at the Chicago History Museum, Despres called for reparations for the descendants of Native Americans defrauded by the 1833 Treaty Of Chicago:
If I were alderman now, I would act by inquiry, resolution and perhaps with dramatic effect. We should learn the whereabouts of the victims' direct descendants. What do they now appear to lack? What do they say they need? How can we make certain that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are available to them?
"Throughout his career," Mike Royko wrote in a 1972 piece reprinted as the foreward to Depres' memoir, "he has been in the forefront of just about every decent, worthwhile effort made to improve life in this city. Being in the forefront, he is usually the first to be hit on the head with the mayor's gavel."
Despres sat for a series of interviews with Ted Regencia in January: