In Memoriam: John Kenneth Lee, 1923-2018

J. Kenneth Lee, a prominent civil rights attorney who was one of five African American students who in 1951 enrolled at the University of North Carolina School of Law, has died at an assisted living facility in Greensboro. He was 94 years old.

Lee was a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, the 13th of 14 children in his family. He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro and then taught at that university. In 1949, he joined a lawsuit seeking admission to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law. He and his fellow plaintiffs were represented by Thurgood Marshall. They won their case in the U.S. Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. In 1951, Lee and four other Black students entered the law school and were the first African Americans to integrate the state university system.

After graduation from law school, Lee became a civil right attorney and represented more than 1,700 defendants in civil disobedience cases during the civil rights movement. In 1957, he successfully represented five Black girls in a fight to attend the all-white Gillespie Park Elementary in 1957. As a result, Greensboro was one of the first cities in the southeastern part of the United States to desegregate its public schools.

Martin Brinkley, dean of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law, said that “Lee is one of the law school’s great citizens of the twentieth century. 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.”

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