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Dawson, William Levi (1886-1970)

WilliamLevi Dawson was a well-known Chicago, Illinois lawyer who became one of the city’s most influentialpoliticians.  His career paralleled the risingsignificance of African Americans in the Democratic Party.  Dawson was born in Albany, Georgia on April 26,1886.  Little is known of his formative years.  In 1912, Dawson graduated magna cum laude fromFisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.  Shortly afterwards he migrated to Chicago wherehe studied law at Northwestern University.  Once the United States entered World War I in 1917,Dawson joined the US Army and was soon commissioned a second lieutenant with the365th Infantry when it served in France. Dawson returned to the United States in 1919, passed the Illinois Bar Exam,and the following year began the practice of law in Chicago.

Dawson was also attracted to politics.  Hebegan his career as a Republican and served as the state central committeeman forthe First Congressional District of Illinois from 1930 to 1932.  During that period Dawson was a close politicalally of then Congressman Oscar DePriest. From 1933 to 1939 Dawson was a Republican alderman from Chicago’s SecondWard.  In 1939, however, Dawson switched tothe Democratic Party and three years later ran successfully for Congress from Illinois’sFirst Congressional District that had been held by Oscar DePriest and then Arthur W. Mitchell.  Dawson held that seat until his death in 1970.

During his career Dawson opposed the poll tax which prevented Southern blacks fromvoting.  His major legislative accomplishmentwas the defeat of the Winstead Amendment which would have allowed military personnelto choose whether they would serve in integrated units after President Harry Trumandesegregated the armed forces in 1948.  In1949, when Dawson was appointed Chair of the House Committee on Government Operations,he became the first African American to preside over a regular Congressional Committee.

Dawson amassed a significant power base in the city of Chicago by working closelywith the Democratic Political

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