NEW BEDFORD — Mayor Jon Mitchell and other city officials joined U.S. Congressman Bill Keating, community members, and students from Gomes and Renaissance schools to honor the late Judge George N. Leighton in a ceremony at his birthplace, now part of the campus of the Alfred J. Gomes School.

Monday, October 22 marks what would have been Leighton’s 106th birthday. Leighton, a pioneer of the civil rights movement and trailblazing African-American judge, died in June at the age of 105. City officials also dedicated a newly planted tree on the campus in his memory.

Born George Leitao, Leighton was the son of Cape Verdean immigrants and grew up in the neighborhood near Monte Park, attending New Bedford Public Schools until Grade 7, when he left school to work in cranberry bogs.

He later served as a merchant seaman before entering Howard University by winning an essay writing contest. He later attended Harvard Law School, leaving early to serve in the U.S. Army as an infantry officer in a segregated unit, earning the Bronze Star.

“I, as an associate of Jude Leighton, an aide I would call myself, am very familiar with the Judge’s patriotic contribution,” said Irvin Russel, President of the Dudley L. Brown V.F.W. Post 287. “The judge was activated during his time at Harvard University. At Harvard Law School he had been in attendance and they activated him to go to World War Two. The Judge’s education was very much interrupted for almost four years while serving in the Pacific Theater.”

After World War II, Leighton graduated from law school and moved to Chicago. Leighton led groundbreaking litigation in voting rights, housing discrimination, police misconduct and school desegregation alongside other legal luminaries, including his friend Thurgood Marshall.

“This is a man that made the most of what he had and what he would hope for you and the service of his country,” Mayor Mitchell proclaimed. “With very little formal education he turned himself into something remarkable and advanced the rights of others, especially people of color. We pay tribute so proudly to him as a son of New Bedford here today and I hope that school children in years ahead will look at this and draw inspiration from it as I do.”

Leighton became the first black judge of the Illinois Appellate Court, and was later appointed to U.S. District Court, where he served until his retirement in 1987.  Judge Leighton received countless honors over the course of his career, including the naming in his honor of a state courthouse in Chicago and New Bedford’s main post office. He passed away in June 2018 at the age of 105.

Judge Leighton will be interred at the Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.


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