Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


No Longer Lonely

By Shawn Healy
Chicago's First Amendment community has lost some ardent champions over the course of the last calendar year. In October, the venerable writer and radio personality Studs Terkel signed off for the final time. Last month, the American Library Association Director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom, Judith Krug, ascended to those stacks of banned books in heaven. This Wednesday, former Chicago Alderman Leon "Len" Despres died at the fine old age of 101, and is surely on course to continue to haunt the late Mayor Richard J. Daley once he passes through the pearly gates and speaks from a microphone that cannot be muted.

Despres' tenure on the Chicago City Council coincided with all but the final year of the first Daley's reign. His championing of civil rights, intolerance for corruption, and clever use of parliamentary procedure proved that all principled causes are not lost, even if one winds up on the short end of a 49-1 council vote rubber stamping "The Boss."

I came to know Len Despres briefly through my work on the Bughouse Square Debates committee. He was part of the original crowd that coalesced to revive what is now an annual celebration of Chicago's free speech tradition at Washington Square Park. Len attended one of our meetings last summer and proved as articulate and passionate as ever.

Where he was once a lone voice in the wilderness, he lived long enough to see many of his causes become decidedly mainstream. His life story, recounted powerfully in a 2005 biography he co-authored, Challenging the Daley Machine, proves the significance of speaking truth to power, even when faced with great odds. Despres record reflects the transformative nature of dissent powered by the First Amendment.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at