George N. Leighton was born on October 22, 1912 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the son of immigrants from the African Cape Verde Islands. He attended grade schools on Cape Cod and in New Bedford. He finished the sixth grade; but never entered high school because he had to work to help support his family. 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. This ended his public school education, but not his quest for knowledge. He was a voracious reader and borrowed books from many various sources and attended night school.
In 1936, Leighton submitted an essay in a writing contest in New Bedford and won a $200 college scholarship. Determined to use the scholarship, he submitted an application for admission to Howard University. He received a letter from the registrar of Howard, informing him that he could attend the school conditionally as an unclassified student. If he proved he could do college work without a high school diploma, Howard would make him a candidate for a degree. In September of or that same year, assisted by the $200 essay scholarship award, and on the authority of the letter written by the registrar, Leighton enthusiastically began his freshman studies at Howard University.
At the end of the first semester examinations, Leighton had made the Dean's Honor Roll. On making the honor roll, Leighton reminded the registrar of the postscript to his 1936 letter, and because of his achievement, was made a candidate for a degree in the College of Liberal Arts. He remained on the Dean’s Honor Roll through his four years of college studies, and in 1940, George Leighton graduated from Howard University - magna cum laude.
Before his graduation, Leighton wrote to the dean of the Harvard Law School. Because of his scholastic record at Howard University, the dean awarded Leighton a first year scholarship to Harvard Law School. He enrolled in September 1940, but midway through his second year, his law studies were interrupted by World War II. Leighton served as an Infantry officer with the 93rd Infantry Division throughout its service in the Pacific Theatre until October 1945, when, as a Captain, he was relieved from active duty. He returned to Harvard and a year later, graduated from Harvard Law School, having already taken and passed the Massachusetts bar exam.
Moving to Chicago in October of 1946, he became active in civic affairs, and soon became a member and the Chairman of the Legal Redress Committee of the Chicago Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He served the Chicago NAACP as president and general counsel, handling many cases, some of them landmark, and in 1964, he proudly became a Life Member in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In 1951, Leighton organized the law firm of Moore, Ming & Leighton, predecessor to the law firms of McCoy, Ming & Leighton and McCoy, Ming and Black, which, by the early sixties, was considered to be one of the largest predominantly black law firms in the United States. During his professional career, Leighton represented plaintiffs and defendants in civil cases of every kind. Leighton withdrew from the firm in 1964 when he was elected judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County.
Judge Leighton was installed as a circuit court judge on December 7, 1964. On July 18, 1969, the Supreme Court of Illinois selected him to sit on the Appellate Court for the First District, and in 1970 Judge Leighton was elected to a 10-year term as a Justice of the Illinois Appellate Court.
In December 1975, President Gerald Ford nominated Judge Leighton to serve as a United States District Judge for the Northern District of Illinois. He was confirmed by the United States Senate and began serving on March 1, 1976. He retired from the bench in 1987, and now, at the age of 90, serves 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.”