Born October 22, 1912 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, George Neves Leitao (his birth name) is the son of immigrant parents, Anna Silva Garcia and Antonio Neves Leitao; both were from Portuguese Cape Verde Islands. He attended school in Cape Cod and in New Bedford. It was in school that he got the name "Leighton" as the teacher claimed she could not pronounce his last name "Leitao." His parents, wanting no problems for their son, agreed.
Due to his family's need for money, Leighton left school after he completed the sixth grade. He spent his Depression-era adolescence working in the cranberry bogs and even on an oil tanker sailing from Fall River, Massachusetts to Aruba, off the northern coast of South America. Though unable to attend school, his quest for knowledge continued. An avid reader in his spare time, he borrowed books and attended night school.
In 1935, a local attorney set up a memorial fund to honor the USS Nantucket's sinking and the Cape Verde residents aboard. The fund started annual essay contest meant to provide initial tuition for winners in any college of their choice. In 1936, Leighton submitted an essay in the writing contest and won the $200 college scholarship. He then gained a conditional admission to Howard University as an Unclassified Student. By the end of the first semester examinations, he had made the Dean's Honor Roll which qualified him as a candidate for a degree in the College of Liberal Arts. He remained on the Honor Roll through his education and, on June 7, 1940, Leighton graduated magna cum laude and earned a first year scholarship to Harvard Law School.
Drafted into military service in 1940, Leighton served during the second World War as an Infantry officer with the 93rd Infantry Division throughout its service in the Pacific Theatre until October 1945 when, as an infantry captain, he was relieved from active duty. In 1945, he re-entered Harvard, earned an L.L.B. in 1946 having already passed the Massachusetts bar examination.
Moving to Chicago in October 1946, he passed the Illinois bar exam and became active in civic affairs. He was chairman of the Legal Redress Committee of the Chicago NAACP between 1947 and 1952, and president of the Third Ward Regular Democratic Organization. And, from 1949 to 1951, he was assistant attorney general of Illinois. In 1951, he also co-founded one of the largest African American law firms in the country and the next year, he became the Chicago Branch NAACP president.
In 1964, Leighton was elected a Cook County Circuit Court judge and began teaching at the John Marshall Law School the next year. In 1969, Leighton became a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Illinois' First District. After six years, President Ford nominated him to serve as a U.S. District Court judge. Leighton retired from the U.S. District Court in 1987 at the age of seventy-five, but began counseling at Earl L. Neal & Associates. Leighton has played a leadership role in governmental groups, serving as chairman of the Character and Fitness Committee for the First Appellate District of Illinois and chairman of the Illinois Advisory Committee for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
At the age of 90, he served the Chicago firm of Neal, Murdock & Leroy as Of Counsel to and teaches law as an adjunct professor at John Marshall Law School.
As an attorney, George Leighton defended more than 200 criminal cases in bench and jury trials. During this same period, he handled more than 175 appeals or reviews, both civil and criminal, in state and federal courts. An ardent and spirited community supporter and civic activist, he has won respect and admiration from all quarters of society. His reputation as a fair, thoughtful and compassionate champion of human rights and the rule of law have earned him a respected place of service in a vast number of legal and civic organizations, committees, panels and boards. In recognition and appreciation of his untiring work, wisdom and leadership, Judge Leighton has received honors, awards, and honorary degrees from around the country. Perhaps none is more poignant than the recent decision of the New Bedford city fathers renaming and rededicating of a hometown junior high school as the George N. Leighton School, in tribute to one of the city's most distinguished sons, one who never attended such a school.
Capping a legal career that spans half a century, Judge Leighton recently summarized the burdens and blessings of a lifetime in the profession of law by saying, "Our profession lives and exists in a plethora of rules, limitations and statutes. One can be disciplined, disbarred or disgraced for failing to operate within those limitations. It requires a disciplined and meticulous nature, a complete awareness of the restrictions. But the blessings far outnumber the burdens. In private practice, you may carve a niche in the community you serve. After many years, you may be asked to serve in the judiciary. The judiciary is the epitome of service. In this, the community says they trust you to be an administrator of justice – it's the highest level of community service that our society offers."
A man with a lifelong passion for the game of chess, Leighton has also participated in civic groups, and served on the board of directors of the United Church of Christ and Grant Hospital.
From: http://www.innsofcourt.org/Content/Default.aspx?Id=347, www.anothershadeofcolor.com, and http://thehistorymakers.com. Photo from a 2002 HistoryMakers interview.