Remembering Leon Despres: Chicago Rebel

Posted September 30, 2009

— Frank Fried

ICONIC CHICAGO ALDERMAN Leon Despres died at the age of 101 on May 6, 2009 in the city he lived and loved. A little frail in stature, Len had a broad intellect that was fully intact to the very end. He fought much of his adult life for a progressive vision of Chicago that “Machine” politics was never ready to accept. After his 1955 election as alderman, and in the first decade of his two-decade term, many city council votes were recorded 49-1. Despres was the lone dissenter.

Despres’ life is significant to readers of this magazine because of his relationship to the socialist movement and, in particular, his identification with the ideas of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Len had been in the Socialist Party and left with Trotskyists in 1937 but did not affiliate with their new organization, the Socialist Workers Party.

I first became aware of Len at the 1946 SWP convention in Chicago where he was a guest. I left the SWP in 1953 and left organized socialist politics in 1959. But, unlike Len, who said only recently in a yet-to-be-released documentary on Trotsky “that I considered myself a Trotskyist but not a Trotskyite,” I considered myself both.

Len, however, continued his involvement in several progressive campaigns. For example, I got to know Len personally after the formation of the James Hickman Defense Committee in 1947. Hickman was a Black steelworker whose apartment was set ablaze by his landlord after he complained about poor living conditions. Hickman’s four children died in the fire. Six months later, Hickman shot and killed the landlord after receiving no relief from the court system.

We were in the Committee together, with Mike Myers and William Temple (attorney for Joe Louis) leading the defense team and me doing lots of “Jimmie Higgins” work. It may seem astonishing looking back today, but the first trial resulted in a failure to get a conviction, thereby facilitating the prosecution offer to free Hickman with two years probation. [For fuller explanation, see “A Previously Unknown Individual” by Joe Allen, International Socialist Review #66, July-August 2009 and “A Lifetime for Socialism,” by Karin Baker and Patrick Quinn, Against the Current #71 November-December 1997.]

Honesty and Integrity

While Len had empathy for left ideas and ideals, he really had no special relationship with any socialist groups though he maintained warm personal relations with individuals like Albert Goldman, Mike Myers, Sid Lens and other figures of the non-Stalinist Chicago left. To me, this was an example of his integrity, which is why I had so much respect for him.

He never pretended to be something he was not. For example, he was one of few people who would readily acknowledge in later years that he was playing tennis at his in-laws in Winnetka when he got news of the 1937 Memorial Day massacre during the Little Steel strike. He didn’t have to excuse himself or make something up to make himself look better. He was playing tennis in a wealthy suburb while others were participating in a strike rally.

The reason this sticks in my mind is that as years went by, some of my friends seemed to get closer and closer to the site of the massacre. Not Len. He stuck to his story and it stuck in my mind as the mark of the man, especially since Len played a significant role in the aftermath of the massacre.

He organized the Citizens’ Committee that investigated the role of the Chicago police who, at the service of Republic Steel, murdered 10 steelworkers. The investigation resulted in a large political rally at the Chicago Opera House where 3500 people heard compelling evidence exposing the role of the cops and the Chicago establishment.

Through the years, Len and I continued to see each other politically as well as socially. I think Len believed in socialism and, in particular, the ideas of Trotsky himself. But he didn’t act on those beliefs alongside organized socialist revolutionaries. As he said decades later when referring to his 1937 visit with Trotsky in Coyoacan, Mexico, “I was not a Trotskyist except in my mind.” In that sense, his socialist ideas never quite made it off the shelf.

It should be recognized, however, that he was a player on the political scene at a time when the radical movement was disintegrating and really wasn’t a platform to reach a wide audience. As a result, Len became best known for the reform politics he chose.

Before being elected alderman, Len was chairman of the Chicago ACLU and the Independent Voters of Illinois (IVI). He opposed segregation in schools and housing and always condemned the racist culture of his beloved city and stood up against hand-picked Uncle Tom officials of the Daley machine. And when the Black movement came into its own in the middle 1960s, and an independent Black alderman outside the Daley machine was elected for the first time in a number of Southside and Westside wards, Len did not try to be the leader of this broader political opposition.

Nor did he try to substitute himself for the emerging Black leadership. Len stepped back but not out. Ultimately, these reformers inside the Democratic Party achieved great success with the election in 1983 of Harold Washington as the first African-American mayor of Chicago.

After Len retired from the City Council in 1975, he continued to serve as City Council parliamentarian under both Mayors Jane Byrne and Harold Washington. During the latter’s reign, Len was considered more an insider and a major player in the administration.

He maintained his labor law practice and won some very significant victories in the 1970s on behalf of steelworkers during the local area’s mill shutdowns and on behalf of reform steelworker union candidate Ed Sadlowski. Len was successful in overturning that “stolen” union election for head of the powerful midwest-based United Steel Workers of America (USWA) District 31.

His labor law practice became marginalized as unions declined. However, Len continued to represent rebels who needed a lawyer with a leftist perspective.

Len was much more than a political activist. He was active in a variety of civic and cultural affairs that complemented his interests in art, the symphony and, in particular, what was known as Chicago-style of architecture.

You could truly say of Len that he was a Renaissance Man. I can only imagine how thrilled he was in 1937 when the famous artist, Diego Rivera, offered to paint his wife Marion. Rivera charged $200 with the money going to support Trotsky’s household. After lunching with Diego, Len recalled fondly later, “my claim to fame is that I took Frida [Kahlo] to the movies while Diego finished Marion’s painting.”

Recalling Trotsky

After I left Chicago, my contact with Len was less frequent. So, I was a bit surprised in 1993 when Len sent me a copy of a letter he received from Al Glotzer, Trotsky’s secretary when the “Old Man” was in exile in Prinkipo, Turkey. Glotzer expressed the strong opinion that the Memorial for prominent social democratic literary figure Irving Howe was dishonest because it ignored Howe’s early training and education in the Trotskyist movement.

I was surprised that Len sent this letter to me, and even more surprised that Glotzer was still alive and in contact with Despres. Len didn’t comment on the letter but by sending it, I assumed that he personally shared Glotzer’s view. Again, it showed there was some spark of recognition and appreciation for revolutionary ideas but still not necessarily enough to make an effort for Len to put them into practice.

With the death of Harold Washington in 1987, Len withdrew from active political life. He celebrated his 100th birthday last year with scores of family and friends who walked the walk with him over those tough early years of isolation, some longer than others. Included among these friends was Studs Terkel, who passed six months later. Among other guests were former Alderman William Cousins, who was the first Black to successfully beat the Daley machine, and Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman U.S., Senator.

The celebration was, in typical Despres fashion, held at a local restaurant in Chinatown, without the garish adornments some think necessary for such an occasion. Not Len. It was supposed to be a very short program, but not after Bill Cousins grabbed the microphone with the 1960 rebels from the Black wards insisting on taking the time to pay respect to their friend and mentor. The tributes ended with Carol Moseley Braun singing “a capella” to the man many credited with playing a significant role in tearing down segregationist Chicago politics and opening doors to participation by the Black community.

When Len got his chance to speak, he observed that he lived through five wars and opposed each and every one of them — demonstrating that in his later years, it was important to him that he define more clearly parts of his radical past that had been pushed to the background. He left the speaker’s podium and joined Studs to eat, wryly commenting, “I’m hungry because there were only supposed to be four toasts.

As part of their forthcoming documentary on Leon Trotsky, Linda Laub and Suzi Weissman spoke with Despres in his Chicago apartment three months before he died. They asked Len what he thought of my remark that “Len had outed himself” based on comments he made several years ago in a New York Times interview.

Despres repeated for the filmmakers what he had stated in the Times article. He said that his visit to Trotsky in Coyoacan, Mexico, “turned out to be one of the leading events of my life.”

After some hesitation and more consideration, Len confirmed that he did not normally reveal his connections to Trotsky. “Nobody asked me about my visit to Trotsky. What was it, 71 years ago? I kept it under my hat for the aldermanic elections, so in that sense, Frank is right, I am outing myself. Once I crossed that obstacle [of the aldermanic elections], I have not worried about people knowing.”

As you look back on Len’s life, it’s obvious to me that Len, at least in his mind, always knew there was another political option than the one he chose, even if he didn’t openly acknowledge it until a few years before his death.

It’s not that he had a messianic vision of Trotsky. Instead, I think it was the fact that it was the only significant incident in his life, at a meeting with the co-leader of the Russian revolution, that validated revolutionary ideas and posed most sharply the alternative to reformism.

The echo of that conversation remained forever imprinted in Len’s political consciousness as revealed by several references to it in his later years and the mention of it in his obituary. He chose not to take this alternative but he did, nonetheless, take it seriously.

As the embers of past ideological disputes were banked, the broad left in Chicago embraced Len for his integrity, his commitment and, in particular, his struggle to desegregate Chicago on all levels.

From this we can say, Len’s was a productive life well lived. Chicago is better off for having Len. For those of us who retain socialist views, we take heart that neither did Len, to the end, let go of its compelling vision.