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Standish E. Willis

Criminal defense attorney Standish E. Willis is quick to make enemies in his work, but only because he insists on doing the right thing. Born in Chicago on August 16, 1941, the ex-gang member-turned-lawyer simply followed his conscience in choosing to take on unpopular clients whose civil rights are violated.

Willis grew up on the West Side, a blue-collar neighborhood and haven for gangs. When he was twelve, Willis joined the Van Dyke street gang and two years later was the leader of the Gents street gang. He became a father at age seventeen. Six months after graduating from Crane High School in 1960, Willis shipped off to the U.S. Air Force and shaped up. When he returned four years later, he took a job as a bus driver and began attending Crane College. As a student, Willis grew politically active, leading the campaign to name the new West Side campus Malcolm X College and organizing clubs and a "Communi-versity" to promote African and African American History.

In 1968, Willis completed his A.A. and transferred to the University of Chicago. He received his B.A. in 1971 and earned an M.A. in economics from the University of Illinois, Chicago, before enrolling at Chicago-Kent College of Law. He received his law degree in 1983 and joined People Law Office, a civil rights law firm.

In his career as an attorney, Willis has been an active crusader against police violence. He organized the African American Defense Committee Against Police Violence and later came full circle when he signed on to represent former street gang leader Aaron Patterson, who was convicted of a double murder in 1989. Willis took the case because Patterson claimed Chicago police beat a confession out of him, and Willis has made no apologies for offering counsel to such an unpopular figure.

In 1984, the Standish E. Willis Community Service Award was established to recognize a student for outstanding leadership and community involvement. Willis has been the recipient of several other awards for his service to civil rights and the community. Willis resides in Oak Park, Illinois. He has five children.

Accession Number

A2003.247

Sex

Male

Interview Date

10/2/2003

Last Name

Willis

Maker Category
Marital Status

Divorced

Middle Name

E.

Occupation
Schools

William E. Gladstone Elementary School

Cregier High School

Richard T. Crane Medical Preparatory High School

University of Chicago

University of Illinois at Chicago

Chicago-Kent College of Law

Malcolm X College

First Name

Standish

Birth City, State, Country

Chicago

HM ID

WIL12

Favorite Season

Spring

State

Illinois

Favorite Vacation Destination

Hawaii, New Mexico

Favorite Quote

Stay strong.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Illinois

Interview Description
Birth Date

8/16/1941

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Chicago

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Fish

Short Description

Civil rights lawyer Standish E. Willis (1941 - ) is best known as an activist against police violence and for representing former street gang leader Aaron Patterson, who was convicted of double murder in 1989.

Employment

Delete

People's Law Office

Favorite Color

Blue, Brown

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Standish E. Willis's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Standish E. Willis lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Standish E. Willis names his parents

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Standish E. Willis talks about his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Standish E. Willis explains how his family moved to Chicago, Illinois during the Great Migration

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Standish E. Willis talks about his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Standish E. Willis remembers his father's stories of racism in the South

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Standish E. Willis describes his father, pt. 1

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Standish E. Willis describes his father, pt. 2

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Standish E. Willis describes his mother

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Standish E. Willis talks about how his parents met

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Standish E. Willis recalls his childhood neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Standish E. Willis recalls the sights, sounds, and smells of growing up on the West Side of Chicago

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Standish E. Willis recalls the importance of sports in his childhood neighborhood

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Standish E. Willis describes the emergence of street gangs in Chicago

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Standish E. Willis describes the systemic neglect in his childhood neighborhood

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Standish E. Willis recalls his experience at William E. Gladstone Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Standish E. Willis recalls his high school experience in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Standish E. Willis talks about working to support his son as a teenage father

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Standish E. Willis explains why he decided to enter the U.S. Air Force

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Standish E. Willis recalls his time in the U.S. Air Force

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Standish E. Willis describes how he was politicized while working for the Chicago Transit Authority during the 1960s

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Standish E. Willis explains why Black Nationalism appealed to him rather than the non-violent Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Standish E. Willis recalls learning about Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Standish E. Willis explains the distinctions between the South Side and the West Side of Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Standish E. Willis talks about Malcolm X's political philosophies

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Standish E. Willis talks about the Black Students Association at Crane Junior College, later Malcolm X College, in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Standish E. Willis describes the issues that concerned him and other student activists at Crane Junior College in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Standish E. Willis talks about entering the University of Chicago in Illinois

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Standish E. Willis describes the beginnings of Communiversity in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Standish E. Willis talks about his studies at the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois, pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Standish E. Willis recalls HistoryMaker John Hope Franklin

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Standish E. Willis talks about his studies at the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Standish E. Willis explains why he decided to become a lawyer

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Standish E. Willis recalls his time at Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Standish E. Willis talks about his shift from labor law to civil rights law

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Standish E. Willis recalls his time at the People's Law Office during the 1980s

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Standish E. Willis remembers the Fred Hampton case

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Standish E. Willis describes his involvement with Harold Washington's mayoral campaigns

Tape: 4 Story: 11 - Standish E. Willis details his involvement with various networks including the National Conference of Black Lawyers

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Standish E. Willis recalls the Andrew Wilson case in 1987 that exposed the practice of torture in the Chicago Police Department

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Standish E. Willis describes the aftermath of the Jon Burge torture case

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Standish E. Willis talks about the Aaron Patterson case

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Standish E. Willis talks about wrongful conviction cases in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Standish E. Willis talks about reluctance in the African American community to criticize law enforcement's encroachment on civil liberties

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Standish E. Willis discusses the problems with the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act of 2001

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Standish E. Willis discusses Illinois's conflicted stance around civil liberties and the death penalty

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Standish E. Willis talks about whether he fears retaliation for his work

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Standish E. Willis talks about organizing for reparations

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Standish E. Willis describes his concerns for the African American community, pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Standish E. Willis describes his concerns for the African American community, pt. 2

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Standish E. Willis speculates about various ways to enact reparations

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Standish E. Willis reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Standish E. Willis considers what he would have done differently

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Standish E. Willis talks about his parents' pride in his career

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Standish E. Willis describes how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Standish E. Willis narrates his photographs, pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Standish E. Willis narrates his photographs, pt. 2

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Standish E. Willis narrates his photographs, pt. 3

DASession

1$1

DATape

4$5

DAStory

2$3

DATitle
Standish E. Willis talks about his studies at the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois, pt. 1
Standish E. Willis talks about the Aaron Patterson case
Transcript
So, what did you major in at the University of Chicago [Chicago, Illinois]?$$As I say, I started off in sociology. When I got there--I always had an interest in history. Because, you know, as a black nationalist, you're always studying history--African history, African American history--everybody's history, you know. That's what Malcolm [X] taught: you always study history--European history, you know, everybody's history. I became more interested in history because I was studying it all the time. And then in addition to that, [HM] John Hope Franklin was at the University of Chicago at the time, and I got the opportunity study under him, you know. And he was, you know, one of our premier historians. So, I shifted to history--American history with an emphasis on African American history. Because the University of Chicago didn't have an African American History curriculum. But you could emphasize or minor, I guess you could say, in African American history, and that's what I did. And then I got interested in Latin American history, Latin American Studies. There was a young professor, John Coatsworth, a white professor, who was, you know, very, very analytical. And I started, I took some of his classes, and I became very interested in what he was doing in economic history. And, and when I went on to a PhD [degree], I actually was following his--studying under him. I went into Latin American studies as a Ph.D. candidate.$Now, the Aaron Patterson case is another celebrated case here in Chicago [Illinois]--$$Yes.$$--that all the justice-concerned groups were involved in. What's that about?$$Well, Aaron Patterson was one of the victims of Jon Burge. He was tortured into confessing to a double murder, and he got, you know, the death sentence. And, you know, we--you know, at a certain point we became convinced that he was a Burge victim, and was innocent. So people began to organize to try to free, specifically, Burge victims. You know, there's different layers of the movement. There are some layers--and I'm included in the abolitionist layers of the movement that want to abolish the death penalty. But within that, there were people that were specifically organizing to free these victims of police brutality, Burge victims. And as you know, you know, after a lot of work, Governor [George] Ryan pardoned Aaron and Madison Hobley, and one other brother; I can't think of his name now. But it wasn't just the goodness of the governor, although, you know, he should be commended. It had been a lot of work. The abolitionist movement has been, had been working around these issues for a number of years trying to fight to abolish it, and trying to educate people, and trying to make sure people supported the moratorium, you know, and all of that. And finally the governor did the right thing, and we were very happy that he did. Of course, Aaron is out, and he hit the ground running. I mean he's been trying to help some of the other brothers get out. In fact, he bonded one out on his own. He had some money coming from the... When you're wrongfully convicted, if you get a pardon of innocence, then there's a formula that has been devised by the State [of Illinois] where you can get compensation from the State, unopposed. So he had money coming, so he took that as a lien and went to one of these loan sharks and they loaned him a $100,000. And he borrowed $100,000, paid enormous interest on it--like $20,000 on the money we was going to get--just to get one of his, one of the other brothers out on bond. You know, and that's kind of how Aaron is. You know, he's a very unusual person, to say the least--very committed. And now, we're representing Aaron in a civil rights lawsuit against Jon Burge and, you know, many of his henchmen. And that's going forward in the federal district court at this very moment.