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Leon Despres

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Leon Despres

Elected in 1955, Leon Despres [DE-prey] served on the Chicago City Council for 20 years. As a Chicago Alderman, he fought to preserve the city's historical identity and to ban discrimination, particularily that aimed at African-Americans. The late Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko described Despres as "the forefront of just about every decent, worthwhile effort."

In this clip Despres sits down with ALBC Commissioner Jean Bandler. Bandler is the daughter of Sen. Paul Douglas, a contemporary of Despres in Illinois politics. Douglas was also a member of the Abraham Lincoln Sesquicentennial Commission in 1959.

Jean Bandler Interview with Len Despres
Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission

 

Jean Bandler:  To start, I thought it might be helpful if you would tell a little bit about your own life and career, which has been many-faceted, no?

 

Len Despres:  Yes.

 

Jean Bandler:  Okay.  Tell a little how you started, and –

 

Len Despres:  I was born in Chicago, and when I was three years old, I moved to the Hyde Park neighborhood, and I’ve lived here ever since.  That’s ninety-five years.

 

Jean Bandler:  I hadn’t realized you were that wise and old, I must admit.

 

Len Despres:  Well, and I went to both the University Laboratory School and public schools alternately, and graduated, and attended high school, and then, I had an exceptional experience in my youth.  After my father died, my mother took my sister and me to western Europe, and I went to French school a year in Rome, a very good school, and to a lycee in Paris for another year, which really gave me a breadth of vision that I was fortunate – I came back to Chicago and graduated from the University and law school and worked for a large law firm for five years, and then went out on my own.

I was very interested in labor law, and I managed to earn my living and pursue my interest in labor law representing working people.  I did that, engaged in a number of cases of particular interest, cases of protesters during the war, and inter-union conflict for freedom of organization, and really had a very interesting practice.  I didn’t become wealthy, but I became well known.  And then, in 1954, I had been interested in independent political action, and I was Chairman of the Independent Voters of Illinois, which was then the significant organization in Chicago.

 

Jean Bandler:  The IVI.

 

Len Despres:  The IVI.  And my yearnings and intentions were left wing, but never CP, you know.  I really shared your father’s horror of the Communist Party, and I initiated political action by initiating a campaign for aldermen in a West side precinct.  And as a result, a group of us were interested in the Hyde Park Precinct.  And by chance, Bob Marian, who was an excellent alderman, ran for mayor, and he called in a group of us to find a candidate for alderman.  We couldn’t find one, and we tried all the prominent people we favored, and finally, our group of four or five met separately, and decided I should run.  And thinking about it for a few days, I did. 

So I really was an independent and ran for alderman, had a very, very stiff campaign against the machine, and was elected.  And then I was alderman for twenty years.  And that was an extremely interesting time for me.  I really – it was a dramatic time, and particularly, I was interested in doing what I could in the City Council to eliminate racial inequality, and – but after twenty years, I felt I’d had enough.  I’m sure I could’ve been elected again.  They asked me to run, but I said for twenty years, [indiscernible] you don’t quit, they throw you out.

 

Jean Bandler:  What were the votes like in the City Council as you waged some of these battles?

 

Len Despres:  I was in for five terms.  The first terms, there were a few republicans pledged, and so there’d be a minority vote of four or five or six.  The second term we were down to three, two republicans and I.  And the vote was very often 49 to 1, because the two republicans did not share my liberal views.  And then, the third term, a couple of African American aldermen came in, and we were a group of three.  The fourth term there were maybe four or five.  But the vote was often 49 to 1, 48 to 2, or 46 to 4.  But it never was any more than that.  It was a minority vote.  Even so, I felt that I made enormous progress in the City House of pushing measures.  I learned to push them and so I never had the feeling of being without executive –

 

Jean Bandler:  So you didn’t feel futile.  It was not a futile thing, but it must’ve been frustrating.

 

Len Despres:  Well, it took a willingness to take abuse.  In a way, in the middle of the term, in 1960, when I was still toward the beginning, in 1960, television entered the City Council.

 

Jean Bandler:  Oh.

 

Len Despres:  And that was a tremendous plus for me because I had relied on the press to publicize my views, but when television came, people could see where I stood, and that was an enormous help.  And my support grew constantly after that, especially my support among African Americans.  And in my own constituency, I was a very conscientious alderman, and paid a lot of attention to the constituents, and that was important, and then I had this city-wide support from African Americans. 

 

Jean Bandler:  And the Fifth Ward was unique, wasn’t it?

 

Len Despres:  Well, Hyde Park was unique, and the Fifth Ward consisted of Hyde Park and a big chunk of Woodlawn.  By that time, had become all black.  Even at the end, a small part of South Shore.  And it was a very favorable district.  It was the home of the University of Chicago, which provided a ferment for the community.

 

Jean Bandler:  Yes, both progressive and also, with some of the dilemmas of University expansion, and everything else, I guess, attention.

 

Len Despres:  Well, yes, the University – I think I used to phrase it as our greatest asset, and also our greatest tribulation.

 

Jean Bandler:  That’s very good.

 

Len Despres:  The University was determined what wasn’t a good course. It made its own determination.  It wasn’t always the one that the community wanted.

 

Jean Bandler:  Yes.

 

Len Despres:  But it was certainly our greatest asset, without question.

 

Jean Bandler:  You know, you still do some practice of the law?

 

Len Despres:  Yes.  I go down to the office about – well, at least every ten days.  I keep my fingers in it.

 

Jean Bandler:  And still really with labor causes and free speech?

 

Len Despres:  Well, no, not that so much.  It’s a matter of winding up the cases aptly.  I mean, my career consists of, always, of labor and free speech.  But now it’s just a matter of dealing effectively with the remnants.  There are four lawyers in the firm, and they’re doing quite well, but I’m not really an active lawyer, but I go down, I meet with them, and I do tend to a few clients.

 

Jean Bandler:  Well, I think that’s really very helpful, because your life and career has spanned such a period of Chicago and American history, and you’ve really been a marvelous spokesman for many causes, many causes.  In looking at Abraham Lincoln, I wonder if you could explain or tell a little bit about what he means to you, and then, later, I’m going to ask you how your views may have changed about Lincoln over time.  But first, what he means to you.

 

Len Despres:  Well, Abraham Lincoln has always been important in my life.  As a child, when I went to school in fifth or seventh grade -- I don’t remember which room it was in – we had a framed [indiscernible] facsimile copy of an engraved replica of the Gettysburg Address, and our teacher told us that this speech was regarded as a masterpiece of writing, and that a copy of it hung on the wall of Oxford, and I couldn’t believe it.  I couldn’t believe that this speech was given such a great honor as to hang on the walls of Oxford.  And so I was very impressed.  I was impressed as a child by the early stories of Lincoln reading by the fireplace, and walking seven miles to get a book, and then seven miles back.  And Lincoln going down the Mississippi and seeing an auction of people – a slave auction – and saying, “Well, I will bring an end to that”.  I don’t know if he ever said it, but that’s part of my childhood.

 

Jean Bandler:  Yes.

 

Len Despres:  So the myth of the early Lincoln was very impressive, especially that item about the Gettysburg Address.

 

Jean Bandler:  Yes, that’s interesting in that you were so impressed that it was on an English university.  Right.

 

Len Despres:  That’s right.  And then, as I grew older, I grew older with Lincoln, always interested in him, but I certainly grew older.  I read a great deal about him, I was impressed by Lord Charnwood’s biography of Lincoln.  Again, it was because an Englishman had decided to write a biography that someone said was the best biography of Lincoln.  And so, you know, I grew with Lincoln, and as I grew with Lincoln, my attitudes changed.  There was a time when I thought Lincoln wasn’t radical enough, wasn’t energetic enough.

 

Jean Bandler:  Not radical enough in terms of –

 

Len Despres:  Slavery.

 

Jean Bandler:  Slavery?

 

Len Despres:  That’s always the problem.  And I thought he should’ve been more forceful.  You know, I felt the Emancipation Proclamation has a proviso that says it shall not apply here, there, and other places.

 

Jean Bandler:  Yes.

 

Len Despres:  And I thought, oh, that’s dreadful.  And I read the appraisal of Lincoln by the – I just can’t remember his name – was it [indiscernible], the senator who was a friend of Lincoln who lived on Lake Park Avenue.  And he said, “The key to Lincoln is ambition.”

 

Jean Bandler:  Ah, yes.

 

Len Despres:  It was ambition, but – so I developed with Lincoln, and my association with him, or my views of him, it changed.  But then, as I gained more political experience, I changed my views to extreme admiration, an admiration for his political skills, as I, myself, had to act in a political environment.

 

Jean Bandler:  What do you think some of the skills were?

 

Len Despres:  His skills?

 

Jean Bandler:  Yes, political skills.

 

Len Despres:  Oh, he was remarkable, you know.  He understood when to talk and when not to talk, he understood whom to enlist and whom not to enlist, he helped people in their political ambitions, and knew that they would help him.  He developed his principles.  Earlier I had been a little taken aback by some of his confessions about prejudice towards African Americans, and then I understood how strong and determined he was on the issue of slavery.  He felt he had to move step by step.  And, of course, I’ve become particularly impressed by his mastery of English language.  I know how important it is.  I, myself, have relied on skill in the English language, and on phrasing a few points skillfully, and his was just extraordinary.  And then I’ve grown over with Lincoln.  He’s got a moving personality, as the years have gone by, and now I think of him as extraordinarily skillful.  I felt very bad about his death in my childhood and now.  I just wish that hadn’t happened, but it did.

 

Jean Bandler:  Reconstruction would have been very different, don’t you think?

 

Len Despres:  Well, I think so.  I think so.  You don’t know.  He was so skillful.  And I’ve been impressed by various biographies of Lincoln, and by his writing.  I treasure Everyman’s edition of his speeches, even though I can’t find it now. 

 

Jean Bandler:  Well, I must say, one of the things that we hope at least to get back into public awareness are some of the speeches, not only the Gettysburg Address, but the Second Inaugural, and I think the debates are marvelous, too.

 

Len Despres:  I’ve read all his speeches. 

 

Jean Bandler:  What autobiographies have you liked the most?  You mentioned several.

 

Len Despres:  I liked Doris Kearns’ very much.  You know, you just feel that you’re walking along with him.  I never read Sandburg’s biography, and I guess it’s kind of plummeted in public [indiscernible], though I would be interested in reading it now, but Doris Kearns –

 

Jean Bandler:  Good one.  And excellent on the political skills, no?

 

Len Despres:  Yes, excellent.

 

Jean Bandler:  And it’s interesting that that appreciation comes a little bit later in life.  I mean, for you, going through the rough and tumble of politics.  For many of us, going through the rough and tumble of life, really.  But to appreciate, as you said, when to talk and when not to, how to help people, sometimes for self-serving reasons, but also to forward a cause, to forward some principles, really.

 

Len Despres:  Well, of course, he had personal sympathy for the downtrodden.  He said labor is superior to capitalism, prior to it, something like that, which was a pretty deep statement.

 

Jean Bandler:  Yes, labor is – how did it go? – labor is –

 

Len Despres:  I don’t know – labor is independent of capitalism, prior to capitalism –

 

Jean Bandler:  Prior, yes.

 

Len Despres:  But there’s more than the Second Inaugural.  His speeches are just wonderful.  And, of course, when you read the Douglas debates, you see that he lost his temper once.  He wasn’t -- he’s our saint now, but his behavior was not always saintly.

 

Jean Bandler:  That’s right.  That’s right.  He was human, right?

 

Len Despres:  Sure.  He didn’t have a very happy marriage.  He got [indiscernible] on the first wedding, I think.  He had other things, I suppose, that were not admirable, but he was so – and then he found himself in this position with the Civil War.  You know, you think of it, you think of Tolstoy, Tolstoy’s description of the general in War and Peace.  The general sits on a bench, and the war goes on, and he’s the leader, and he’s the one who’s responsible for the victory, but the whole movement is so massive that you can’t tell who’s directing it, who’s doing what.  And that was true of the Civil War.  You know, he would get up in the evening and walk over to the telegraph office.  Imagine that, without Secret Service. 

 

Jean Bandler:  Yes.  In a way, his humanity, the fact that he was a human being and not a saint, is very appealing, no?

 

Len Despres:  Oh, sure.  I should say so.  You feel he’s a very able man.  The saint you think of is somebody who’s endowed supernaturally with special abilities.  He was a human being, but he was thrust into this Civil War position, and he was equal to it, if he wasn’t at that point, he wasn’t self-seeking.  He was trying to win.  I didn’t understand when I first read of him saying that if I could hold the union together, and not free a single slave, or something to that effect, I would do it if I could free – you know, he said he was fighting to hold the Union together, but it turns out that he really – the one thing that was firm with him was not to permit the extension of slavery, and that was enough.  He didn’t have to say, “I want to emancipate all the slaves now.”  He had to make it clear that he was against the extension, and when the slaveholders saw that he was throttling their expansion, the issue was made.  He was very firm about it.  No extension.  He understood this – I don’t know if he understood, but, anyhow, that was enough.  That brought an end to slavery.

 

Jean Bandler:  Yes, well, that would certainly – the key, there.  Kansas and Nebraska.  What important lessons do you think Abraham Lincoln can teach us today, not in the sense of “Oh, what would Lincoln do?”  You know, but what can we learn from Lincoln as we move forward in the United States?

 

Len Despres:  Well, I think you have to stand for freedom, and just stand for it strongly, without qualifications.  You’ll have to do it with tact, and energy, and knowledge, and eloquence, and whatever else you can summon, but you have to stand for freedom.  There’s a test for what the freedom issues are at any given time.  And then you have to do all you can to bring it about.  You talk about his earlier speeches.  Well, you know, they’re very good.  You look back and you say, “Where did he stand on slavery?”  Well, he said in Springfield, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”.  That’s a great statement.  That’s a great speech, and that’s the essence of what he believed.  You can’t equivocate on the basic issue.

 

Jean Bandler:  Well, it’s interesting you mention freedom, because certainly one of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commissions’ three mottos is freedom, democracy – freedom is one, and then democracy, and equal opportunity, kind of a catch-all, but that all people should have a right to start equally.  And freedom is certainly a key in that, isn’t it?

 

Len Despres:  It is.  I should say so.  And you mention it first.  Sure.

 

Jean Bandler:  Yes.  Another of our – sort of slogans is to live the legacy.  To live the legacy of Lincoln in this regard, and you suggest we have to stand strong on all issues regarding freedom, and I think you would agree with democracy and equal opportunity, too.

 

Len Despres:  Certainly.  No question about it.

 

Jean Bandler:  And the ward, the city, the state, the national level.  Yes, and in daily life, as well.  Yes.  What else should we know about your views and thoughts of Lincoln?

 

Len Despres:  Well, I don’t know.  I want to take your address because I have a thought that flitted away.

 

Jean Bandler:  Okay.

 

Len Despres:  If it comes back, I want to send it to you.

 

….

 

Len Despres:  Well, whatever the thought that I had, I felt it was pretty good, but it flitted away.

Jean Bandler:  Well, it will come back, I’m sure, and we’d love to have it.

Len Despres:  Right.

Jean Bandler:  Okay, I really appreciate your talking.

Len Despres:  Well, I’m glad you called.  I’m glad you’re working on it.

Jean Bandler:  Well, it’s a wonderful cause, isn’t it?  …

Jean Bandler:  Good, well, best wishes and many thanks.

Len Despres:  Thank you.

Jean Bandler:  Okay, goodbye.

 

            == End of Transcription ==