He grew up in a tiny Mississippi town, but William Cousins Jr. graduated from Harvard law school, served in combat in the Korean War and became a prosecutor, independent Chicago alderman and a Cook County circuit court judge. Later, he rose to be a judge of the Illinois Appellate Court.
Judge Cousins died Saturday at 90 at the University of Chicago Hospitals, according to his daughter Cheryl.
In the late 1960s, he ran for office with the slogan “unbowed, unbossed and unbought.” He won and became the first black independent alderman from the 8th Ward. In 1976, he was elected a Cook County judge.
He was known for his work ethic, fairness and formality. From the bench, he always referred to himself as “the court.” Judge Cousins was known for staying at the courthouse however long it took for a jury to deliberate – even if it meant turning off the lights at midnight.
He was proud of his circuit court ruling that found Illinois’ death penalty unconstitutional in 1979, more than 20 years before then-Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on capital punishment. Calling it “cruel and unusual,” he said it was “wantonly and freakishly” used. He never did impose the death penalty, said retired Judge Daniel M. Locallo, who once tried cases in his courtroom.
Locallo was struck by the judge’s esteem for the work of juries. When jurors were led into his courtroom, he rose from his bench and told them, “We stand out of respect for you.”
In retirement, Judge Cousins also worked on probes into two 2003 disasters–the blaze at the Cook County Administration Building that killed six and the E2 nightclub stampede that killed 21.
“I had the privilege [of] working with Judge Cousins on reviewing the city’s building code enforcement after the E2 tragedy. He was a consummate professional and thoughtful leader whose commitment to service and this city will be deeply missed,” said Andrea Zopp, CEO of World Business Chicago.
Even in his later years, he gave people advice on their careers and life. It was easy for them to find him – for a long time, he had a listed telephone number.
Young William grew up near Swiftown, Mississippi, where “cotton is king,” he told author Will Horton.
An early tragedy left him an only child. “The parents were outside in the cotton field and he was inside with his sister [Beatrice]. They had one of those old stoves, a wood-burning stove, and her little dress caught afire” and she died, Cheryl Cousins said.
“Swiftown was not a place where, let’s say, black folks can grow,” the judge told Horton. “Swiftown is within a stone’s throw of the place where Emmett Till was killed.”
When he was about 5, his parents moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he used to deliver the Memphis World newspaper. “I think at one time, he was making more money than his daddy,” said his daughter.
Several years later, his family came north to Chicago, where he attended DuSable High School. He graduated from the University of Illinois with honors.
“I was admitted to four different law schools, Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Michigan,” he told Horton. He earned a law degree from Harvard in 1951.
“Grandpa graduated law school, walked offstage and went into the Army the next day,” said his granddaughter Inglish Wilson. He was a second lieutenant in the infantry, where “he commanded a basically all-white unit,” his daughter said.
In 1952, at an officers’ party in Matsushima, Japan, he saw his future wife, Hiroko.
“Daddy couldn’t speak any Japanese and mommy couldn’t speak any English,” said Cheryl Cousins. They communicated through Hiroko’s sister and brother-in-law, who were teachers who spoke English.
The following year, after he completed his military tour, they married in Japan.
In their private life, he liked to say, Hiroko was the judge.
At their South Side home, he planted a cherry blossom tree to remind her of home. They kept a pond with Japanese koi. She cooked the judge Japanese food. Both of their daughters have Japanese middle names – Cheryl Akiko and Gail Yoshiko Cousins.
In the mid-1950s, he went to interview for a job at a predominantly white major Chicago law firm. They mustn’t have known he was black, he said, because once he arrived, a managing partner told him, “Your parents must be proud of you, but our clients would not understand.” He started his career at Chicago Title and Trust.
He was a prosecutor from 1957 to 1961 and then worked in private practice through 1976. He served as a circuit court judge from 1976 to 1992, when he joined the state Appellate Court. The judge ran unsuccessfully to be a state Supreme Court justice. He retired in 2002.
Judge Cousins was a member of Trinity United Church of Christ and Kappa Alpha Psi and Sigma Pi Phi. His wife died in 2005. In addition to his daughters, he is survived by his sons Yul and Noel and four grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were pending.