University News

Former student whose lawsuit helped desegregate the University has died at 94

Lee was one of four students who led the desegregation of campus in the late 1940s and early 1950s

Floyd McKissick, J. Kenneth Lee, Harvey Beech and James Lassiter sit in chairs
From left: Floyd McKissick, J. Kenneth Lee, Harvey Beech and James Lassiter. Photo courtesy of the Kathrine R. Everett Law Library.

J. Kenneth Lee, one of four African-American students who joined a lawsuit that led to the desegregation of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law, has died. He was 94.

Lee was part of the lawsuit that was filed in 1949. He and the other plaintiffs were represented by Thurgood Marshall, then director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and later associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In June of 1951, Lee, along with Harvey Beech, James Lassiter, Floyd McKissick and James Robert Walker enrolled in the UNC School of Law. The students’ admission had the effect of desegregating the University, said Martin Brinkley, dean of the School of Law.

Other graduate and professional schools at Carolina soon followed, and by the mid-1950s, black students were admitted to the College of Arts & Sciences.

After graduation, Lee became a prominent civil rights attorney in Greensboro, with a career spanning more than five decades of active practice.

“Lee is one of the law school’s great citizens of the 20thcentury,” Brinkley said. “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.”

More information about Lee and the other students who helped desegregate the law school can be found in the Kathrine R. Everett Law Library’s digital collection “Law School First – The African Americans Who Integrated UNC-Chapel Hill.”