Leon Despres | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Leon Despres 

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He's a courtly 97-year-old who relies on a walker, but longtime Fifth Ward alderman Leon Despres has a few swift kicks he'd like to deliver. Challenging the Daley Machine, his new memoir, takes on his nemesis, Richard J. Daley, and the docile City Council that left him alone on the losing side of so many votes during his 20 years in office. Despres' stories of Chicago patronage and corruption won't be a surprise to anyone who's read the paper lately. The tales he tells on himself might raise a few eyebrows though. He was lionized as an independent, but it turns out Despres was put up for office by a backroom cabal. He was revered for his integrity, but his first and pretty much only City Council success was hatched with an alderman later convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy. Though he was famously called the "lone 'negro' spokesman" in the City Council (Despres is white), Hyde Park became a segregated fortress on his watch. Despres went on to serve as council parliamentarian under Jane Byrne ("a great disappointment" in office, he says) and Harold Washington ("the best mayor in Chicago's history"), and for ten years he was a member of the Chicago Plan Commission. But what this book makes clear is how little he was ultimately able to do. You know what they say about good intentions. Here he'll discuss the book with historian Timuel Black. University Center, River Room. Sat 6/11, 4:30 PM.

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