Sunday profile: Ike Leggett

Ike Leggett (Photo courtesy Montgomery County)

By ABC 7's Ben Eisler
Edited by Kim Eisler

Ike Leggett grew up in an old shotgun house in Alexandria, Louisiana. It had three rooms. "Not three bedrooms," he says, "three rooms." His family had thirteen kids. And their diet consisted almost entirely of rice and beans, occasionally with chicken on the bone on weekends.

"I can’t ever think to a time when I was not [working]," he recalls. As a kid, he shined shoes, sold newspapers, washed dishes, and did farm work. He’d spend long days in the sun, picking and hoeing cotton for white people. All done by hand, it was hard work, especially when it rained.

His mother and father had third grade educations, but read a lot, and could talk about anything. "You're just so smart -- just so smart!" Leggett’s mother would tell him. "There’s nothing you’re not smart enough to figure out." She died a week before he became the first African American elected to the Montgomery County Council, in 1985. Leggett tears up talking about it, but says she never doubted something like that would happen.
In high school, Leggett was a star quarterback, but not because of his arm.

He had a unique intellectual aptitude for the sport. He was such a great player, while still a student; he was named an offensive coordinator and assistant coach. But he never applied himself in the classroom and ended up having to bargain his way into Southern University in Baton Rouge.

Unfortunately, the only slot they’d give him was with the maintenance group, or "outside with the clean-up detail," who picked up trash and mowed lawns. At some point that summer, he told himself, "I’m not going to do this type of work anymore. The only grass I’m ever going to cut again will be on property I own." And truth be told, he never cut anyone else’s grass ever again. For the past twenty years, he’s cut only his six acre plot in Burtonsville.

In his freshman year, Leggett forgot about sports, became a distinguished honor roll student, and president of every class and student government possible. In the summer of 1964, he met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time at a summer camp outside Ashville, North Carolina. An address and a handshake would change him forever. "It felt like he was speaking to me," he remembers.

After their meeting, Leggett became more focused on the need for change through student activism. He began to associate with young civil rights leaders like Stokely Carmichael and Julian Bond. And he became one himself. In the spring of 1967, he called for a series of boycotts around the segregated Southern University campus.

On a Friday evening, he had an army of students block all entrances to the university. A night guard tried to exit, and the crowd surrounded them. "Leggett said no one can leave," one boy told him. The guard got nervous and dropped his shotgun.

When it hit the pavement, pellets flew, hitting two students. The incident prompted Leggett to immediately meet with University and Community leaders. And it led to (at least temporary) profound changes at the university, in the food, the condition of the dormitories, and the community’s transportation system. At the same time that Mr. Leggett was leading student protests he also served as commander of Southern University’s ROTC.

In the late 60s, Leggett was a First Lieutenant, stationed in Georgia. Since his childhood, he had always wanted to join the military. In those days, African American service members were the only African Americans that got respect.

But after the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, Leggett was sent to Druid Hill in Baltimore to help quell the riots. He had to help suppress the very movement that he spent years building up. After a tour of service in Vietnam, confused and conflicted, he decided to go into politics. It would allow him to enjoy both the service element of the military and the transformative capacities of the civil rights movement. In 1978, he was selected as a White House Fellow.

Leggett graduated from Howard Law School with the third highest GPA in its history. He began teaching there in 1976, and among his students were Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Adrian Fenty, Rushern Baker, Vincent Orange, and Kevin Chavous. Jack Johnson was a year behind him at Howard, and Leggett calls him "a good friend." When Jackson was indicted on federal corruption charges, Leggett commented, "Very sad. You want to believe it’s not true."

Leggett's own political career hasn't gone without controversy. In 1992, a formal council aide accused him of sexual harassment (a jury dismissed the case). As county executive, he proposed a hike in the gas tax, a day laborer center near the Shady Grove Metro, and he's currently trying to get a youth curfew law passed in the county. Councilman Phil Andrews told the Gazette newspaper that the curfew was "one of the worst proposals I've ever seen come over from the executive branch."

In his five years as county executive, he also closed budget gaps totaling $2.5 billion, and eliminated 12 percent of County government positions. He established CountyStat to track government performance in real time, and established a 311 call center for residents to report problems.

In the late nineties Leggett would realize one of his proudest accomplishments to date. He wanted to ban smoking in public bars and restaurants, but no other county official would support it at that time. Later, he convinced Steve Silverman that it was the right thing to do and gained the support of four other councilmembers. Still, the County Executive vetoed it.

But, Leggett didn’t stop there. He figured out that he didn’t have to pass the bill through the council. He could convene the board of health and introduce the plan as a health regulation, over which the executive has no veto power. He did exactly that, and the county became one of the first in the country to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, after which many would follow suit.

As Leggett deconstructed these events last month at the Austin Grill, a plate of plain rice, beans, and chicken sat before him. He eats this meal as often as he can; it’s a ritual of memory and family. While he ate, he attributed his achievements to the resilience he gained in the cotton fields of Alexandria, the passion for change he cultivated on the streets of Baton Rouge, and to his mother, who always had his back. He remembered how she spoke to him when he was a child, and it’s clear the message stuck to his ribs: "There’s nothing you’re not smart enough to figure out."