Jerris Leonard; Justice Department Official

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 3, 2006

Jerris Leonard, 75, an assistant attorney general for civil rights during the Nixon administration and the first administrator of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, died of complications of liver cancer July 27 at Sibley Memorial Hospital. He lived in Bethesda.

As a Justice Department official during President Richard M. Nixon's first term, Mr. Leonard oversaw the federal government's efforts to at first delay and then to enforce court-ordered desegregation of Southern schools.

The Nixon administration tried to slow down the implementation of desegregation orders for 30 Mississippi school districts, but the U.S. Supreme Court issued what newspapers called a "desegregate-at-once" decision. Mr. Leonard described it as more of a "psychological" than a legal opinion, adding, "Take the Mississippi situation out, and give me one example where we have not vigorously enforced the civil rights law."

Jim Turner, a career Justice Department attorney who became Mr. Leonard's deputy, said: "Once the [Supreme Court] decision happened, a whole crew went down South and said [school segregation] is over. . . . That's when major school desegregation happened."

In 1970, the administration set up biracial state committees to plan and implement school desegregation across the South, overseen by federal attorneys, marshals and the courts.

Mr. Leonard, in a 2000 speech at Creighton University, noted that the administration "successfully and without violence desegregated the public school systems in the South that fall. . . . I wish I could say that we successfully integrated the schools themselves, which we did not . . . but we had some successes, have had more in intervening years and will have more in the future."

As assistant attorney general, he personally led the federal investigation into the 1969 killing of two Black Panther leaders, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, by Chicago police. And he sued the Teamsters and International Longshoremen's unions for discrimination against black members, settling the case out of court.

He passed on the opportunity to sue major movie and television studios, including Disney, for discrimination, he told the Creighton audience, preferring a voluntary agreement. "I did not want Richard Nixon, John Mitchell or for that matter Jerris Leonard to be known as the people who sued Snow White, Micky Mouse and Pluto . . . and besides, I had six children and I was not going to face the barrage of accusations at home that I had sued Bambi."

Never a man to mince words, he often turned up in the news for his comments on events of the day. His home town, Chicago, he declared, was the most segregated city in the country. College administrators and faculty who blamed student unrest on the government's decisions are "charlatans and demagogues," he said.

After two high-profile years in the civil rights division, Mr. Leonard was appointed to head the LEAA, which distributed millions in federal money to upgrade local police, courts and prisons and was considered to be a major weapon in the administration's law-and-order initiative.

In 1973, he moved into private legal practice and almost immediately was immersed in a controversy over whether he violated conflict-of-interest rules by representing Florida promoter Glenn W. Turner in a mail-order fraud case. Acting Attorney General Robert Bork later determined he did not.

Mr. Leonard went on to unsuccessfully represent boxer Muhammad Ali, who said the federal government unfairly denied him conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War; the Mississippi legislature, which wanted to institute open primary elections; conservative author Victor Lasky in a libel case against ABC television; and former Arizona governor Evan Mecham for obstruction of justice and misuse of public funds. He was also the lawyer for George H.W. Bush when he served as chairman of the Republican National Committee.

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