Sunday profile: Ike Leggett

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By ABC 7's Ben Eisler
Edited by Kim Eisler

Ike Leggett (Photo courtesy Montgomery County)

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.

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