New Bedford WWII veteran celebrates 105th birthday

BROCKTON, Mass. (WHDH) — Former federal judge George Leighton is celebrating a birthday for the ages, well, many ages.

Dozens of friends and family members gathered Friday afternoon at the veteran’s hospital in Brockton to celebrate with Leighton.

“We are here to mark your 25th birthday!” exclaimed a reveler.

Not exactly. On Sunday, Leighton turns 105 years old. He’s seen some of the biggest moments in American history pass by, and as a judge, he’s helped shape some of them.

In the 1950s, Leighton went to Mississippi to represent death row inmates in their criminal cases.

In 1951, as part of the NAACP, Leighton represented a black Chicago family that had been threatened by angry whites after renting an apartment building in Cicero, Illinois. He filed federal suit and got an injunction forcing the town to let the family enter the apartment. A riot broke out and the state’s governor called in the national guard. Leighton was indicted along with several others for conspiracy to incite a riot. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall served as Leighton’s defense counsel and ultimately the indictment was dismissed.

“He’s truly one of the most extraordinary lawyers and judges that you will ever meet,” says longtime friend and Chicago-based lawyer Jeff Colman.

Born in New Bedford, Leighton served in World War II and went to Harvard Law School. He went on to practice law in Chicago, eventually rising to the level of federal judge for the northern district of Illinois.

“My name became well known and recognized as a lawyer who defended human rights,” said Leighton at his party.

His years of service put his milestone birthday on the radar of former President Obama, who shared a message just for George.

“My name became well-known and recognized as a lawyer who defended human rights.”

“You have made many memories and woven your own unique story into the American narrative,” Colman read from Obama’s letter. Colman received the Obama’s note from a friend who worked for Michelle Obama.

Leighton says he encountered opposition throughout his life, but his message is one of perseverance.

“Spread the word,” Leighton says. “Talk to every young person you know and tell them it can be done!”

Words of encouragement from a man whose wisdom spans more than a century.

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