North Carolina

J. Kenneth Lee, black civil rights champion who helped desegregate UNC, dies at 94

J. Kenneth Lee
J. Kenneth Lee University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

J. Kenneth Lee was one of the first black students to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His legacy has shaped the university, state and nation ever since.

Lee was one of four black students who joined a lawsuit in 1949 that would change history and lead to the desegregation of the UNC School of Law.

The university announced on July 30 that Lee had died at age 94. Lee died last week. His funeral was July 30 in Greensboro.

Lee and fellow plaintiffs were represented by Thurgood Marshall in the lawsuit. Marshall was the director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund at the time of the suit and would later become an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.

In June 1951, Lee and four others — Harvey Beech, James Lassiter, Floyd McKissick and James Robert Walker — enrolled at the UNC School of Law, according to the university. They were the first black students to be admitted in the history of the law school, according to the university.

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Floyd McKissick, J. Kenneth Lee, Harvey Beech and James Lassiter. Kathrine R. Everett Law Library.

Lee would go on to become “a prominent civil rights attorney in Greensboro, with a career spanning more than five decades of active practice,” according to the university.

“Lee is one of the law school’s great citizens of the 20th century,” said Martin Brinkley, dean of the UNC School of Law. “His strength and commitment to justice paved the way for students not only at the law school but at the university. His tireless work arguing civil rights cases across North Carolina created positive changes that are still felt today and will continue to be felt for years to come.”

With Lee and the other students’ admissions, UNC began to desegregate, Brinkley said. Other graduate and professional schools at the university would follow, the university said.

Years later, black students were admitted to the UNC College of Arts and Sciences.

Lee and his fellow students applying and being admitted to the UNC School of Law followed decades of legal battles that eventually led to 1951’s U.S. Court of Appeals case, McKissick v. Carmichael, after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Sweatt v. Painter. in 1950, according to the university.

Lee went on to represent “the majority of the 1,700 civil disobedience cases in North Carolina that started with the Woolworth sit-ins of 1960 and included the arrest of his own son, Michael,” The News & Record in Greensboro reported.

The first legal action to desegregate public higher education in the south also involved a black student trying to gain admission to UNC.

In 1933, Thomas R. Hocutt, a student at the North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham (now North Carolina Central University), applied for admission to the UNC pharmacy school, which did not admit black students. Hocutt was rejected because he was black, according to Jerry Gershenhorn’s 2001 article “Hocutt v. Wilson and Race Relations in Durham, North Carolina, during the 1930s” in The North Carolina Historical Review.

Thurgood Marshall completed research on Hocutt’s lawsuit against the university in state superior court, which was ultimately unsuccessful, while he was in college at Howard University. The case laid groundwork for later civil rights battles, including Lee’s.

‘Just for the white children’

Lee was born on Nov. 1, 1924 in Charlotte, one of 14 children. His family later moved to Hamlet, North Carolina in Richmond County near the South Carolina border, he told Ann S. Estridge in a 1995 oral history interview about his life.

From the beginning, Lee lived and breathed the inequality that was the norm for black people in the United States and in North Carolina. He was the grandson of Martha Lee, who was born a slave.

“I believe one of my uncles was traded for a mule named Dan,” he said.

Lee walked several miles to school each day because black students were not allowed on the school buses, he said. He’d pass the white school on his way.

“Just for the white children,” Lee said in the Southern Oral History Program interview. “We didn’t have school buses at our school, no school buses for anybody. I have never been on a school bus in my life.”

Lee’s father made $11 per week by the time he died. The whole family picked cotton to support themselves. All of Lee’s siblings who wanted to go to college, did.

His high school diploma reads “Richmond County Colored School.” At his 50th high school reunion, students were given new diplomas “that left the ‘colored’ off of it,” he said. He was valedictorian of his class.

“We (as a race) had lived it so long it just seemed normal,” Lee said, describing getting school books that had been handed down from the white school, with two or three white children’s names in the book or with marks on the pages.

“I never got a new book in school in my life,” he said. “Never saw one. It always had somebody else’s name in it.”

‘They threatened to close the law school’

It wasn’t until he was enrolled at UNC that Lee would have a white teacher, he said.

“But we had some of the best teachers,” Lee said of the black instructors who taught him until he left for university.

Lee would go on to serve in the military during World War II and to study electrical engineering at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, a historically black university, where he would later teach.

Later, when no banks would give him a loan to build a house in Guilford County because of the color of his skin, he started his own savings and loan bank, American Federal, and built the house he lived in for decades.

Lee said he also opened a private trade school for black veterans to help them become electricians — Del Watts Radio and Electronics Institute — among many, many other professional and personal pursuits.

‘Nothing was wrong with me’

Lee said people threatened him and his fellow law school applicants, who were kept isolated on a floor of a dorm to themselves.

“They threatened to close the law school,” he said in the interview. “If we didn’t withdraw — they would close the law school.”

Lee said he decided on UNC, partly because he knew he wasn’t welcome.

“It was hard at the time ... the Klan and all of this stuff had worked,” he said. “And there was so many people that was so afraid.”

He was better received by his fellow students than by his instructors at UNC, Lee said.

“I had teachers at Carolina that taught me the whole time I was there and never called my name, never spoke to me,” he said. “If it was something I had done to him, it would have been different, but it was something wrong with him. Nothing was wrong with me.”

But not everyone treated the black law students poorly, Lee said.

“I met some of the greatest people I have ever met in my life down there at that place,” he said in the Southern Oral Histroy Program interview.

One of those was Myron “Mike” Ross, a law student and editor of the Law Review at the time, Lee said.

“From the day we went there, he kind of took us by the hand and showed us around,” Lee said of Ross. But Ross would not be rewarded for reaching out to his fellow students.

“They didn’t let him take the North Carolina Bar,” Lee said. “Said that he wasn’t a sufficient moral character. Said he was a communist because he associated with us. They said he was a communist because he helped n------, and he did. He invited us around his house. He studied with us and showed us the ropes. He knew the chance he was taking. He just believed that everybody ought to be treated alike, and that made him a communist.”

When it came time for Lee to take the bar exam, he was convinced the state wouldn’t allow him and Harvey Beech to pass.

“I thought that they might let one of us by, because we had gotten so much publicity. But they didn’t. Both of us passed.

“I had to go all the way to the United States Supreme Court to get into law school,” he said. “Got in there. Finished.”

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