George Neves Leighton was born in Massachusetts in 1912 along with his twin sister after his parents immigrated to America from Cape Verde. Leighton loved learning, but had to cut his education short after sixth grade to pick cranberries, strawberries and blueberries with his father. He later took up a job on an oil tanker that was sailing from Massachusetts to as far as Aruba. Whenever he wasn’t working, he could be found reading, and attending night classes to make up for leaving school.
In 1936, Leighton applied for and won the Cape Verdean Memorial Scholarship Fund, which allowed him to attend Howard University. He won despite the language barrier, no high school education and a life defined by constant work and sacrifice. He graduated from Howard and was accepted to Harvard Law School.
During his second year at Harvard, in March 1942, Leighton was drafted into the Army. He went to basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia. After training, he was sent to Fort Huachuca in Arizona and then stationed throughout the Pacific Theater with the 93rd Infantry, a segregated Army division. For his service, he earned a Bronze Star Medal, a Distinguished Service Medal, an Asiatic Pacific Service Metal and a Combat Infantry Badge. He served as a captain until he was honorably discharged in 1945. Returning to the U.S., he would graduate from Harvard in 1946.
Leighton served in law for the rest of his life, dedicating his work to fighting for civil rights and equality in housing, voting rights and jury services. He owned a private practice for six years, then served at the state and district level until 1976. He was the first African American man to serve as a judge on Illinois’ Court of Appeals in Illinois’ First District. He also served Assistant Attorney General of Illinois between 1949 and 1951. In 1975, he was nominated by President Gerald Ford as a U.S. District Court Judge. He retired as a senior judge at age 99 in 2011. As a lawyer, he once had Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a client; As a judge, he mentored many individuals, including former President Barack Obama.
Throughout his life, Leighton was a member and chairman of the Legal Redress Committee of the Chicago NAACP, where he also served as the president in 1952. Between 1947 and 1952, he also served as third president of the Third Ward Regular Democratic Organization. In 1951, he founded one of the largest predominantly African American law firms: Moore, Ming and Leighton. Amidst all his civil rights activism and pioneer work in law, he was an avid chess player and often traveled to compete in tournaments.
After retirement, Leighton moved to the Brockton VA in Massachusetts, where he died in 2018 at 105. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
We honor his service.