Profile | Spring 2021 Issue

Barbara Lee: A Life of Service and Action

From her childhood in El Paso to representing California's East Bay: unyielding dedication to progress

By Jim Newton

MANY PEOPLE THINK BARBARA LEE, the veteran member of Congress from Oakland and an icon of modern progressive politics, began her activism when she refused to accept the segregation of her San Fernando Valley high school cheerleading squad. But that was not her first encounter with racism. It came the day she was born.

Her mother’s pregnancy had been difficult, and doctors ordered a Cesarian section. But she was Black, and when she went into labor, the emergency room staff at the El Paso, Texas, hospital refused to admit her.

Desperate, she called for Barbara Lee’s grandmother, who could pass as White because Barbara Lee’s great-grandmother had been raped by a White man. The grandmother arrived and demanded entry for her daughter. The staff, confronted with someone who looked White, relented.

Once admitted, however, Barbara’s mother was forced to lie on a gurney, unattended, for hours. She grew increasingly distraught, then delirious and finally passed out. Only then was she taken to a delivery room, where her baby, now the congresswoman from California’s 13th District, entered the world.

“My activism,” Barbara Lee said, “comes from the very beginning.”

On civil rights and cheerleaders

SHE SPENT HER CHILDHOOD IN EL PASO. The public schools were segregated, so she went to a Catholic elementary school. The local movie house, the Plaza Theatre, was a grand palace built in 1930, resplendent with mosaics and elegant carpeting. It, too, was segregated, so she skipped the movies.

“I always wanted to go,” Lee said.

Lee’s father, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, moved the family to the San Fernando Valley, north of downtown Los Angeles. At San Fernando High School, Lee decided to join the cheerleading squad. But again, she confronted the realities of racism. “If you weren’t blonde and blue-eyed,” she said, “you couldn’t join.”

Rather than accept the barrier, Lee turned to the local chapter of the NAACP. It encouraged her to challenge the school and pressed administrators to replace tryouts — which gave judges the opportunity to weed out threats to the color line — with elections. Lee and another non-White classmate, an Asian American girl, both won the right to cheer for the school that had tried to deny them the opportunity.

It was Lee’s first election and first victory. She was 15 years old. A picture of her in a cheerleader uniform appears on her congressional website.

Lee attended Mills College during the early 1970s, in the area where she would later establish her political base. As a young mother, she joined the Black Student Union and, memorably, invited Shirley Chisholm, a Black member of Congress, to speak on campus. Chisholm, stirring and barrier-challenging, sought the presidency in 1972 as the “unbought and unbossed” candidate determined to be a “catalyst for change.” Moved by Chisholm’s determination and promise, Lee helped organize her Northern California campaign.

Barbara Lee cast her first presidential vote for the first Black woman elected to the House of Representatives.

Lee graduated in 1973, received a master’s degree in social work from nearby UC Berkeley and landed a summer internship with Ron Dellums, the groundbreaking member of Congress whom she would later serve as chief of staff. In 1990, Lee was elected to the California Legislature, and in 1998 she took Dellums’ seat in Congress.

At this history suggests, Chisholm was an inspiration, and Dellums was an influential role model. “He was a very smart man, of course,” Lee said. “He was eloquent, a statesman, progressive.” Moreover, he was committed to the idea that elected officials need to be true to their convictions but also open to working with others. “When you find common ground,” he would say, “work with it.”

Optimistic, without illusions

LEE IS MANY THINGS. She is excited about America’s future but unromantic about its past. Cheerful and quick to laugh, she is also bracingly clear-eyed. We spoke to a group of business and civic leaders a few months ago. As we checked volume levels and camera lighting, Lee did her part, then suddenly asked about the group itself. Were participants familiar with White supremacy and the history of racial oppression? Assured that they were, Lee smiled and returned to checking the battery level on her laptop.

She represents one of the most liberal House districts in America, and she has held that seat for 22 years, making her one of the most senior members of Congress, as well as one of its most respected. She reaches across the complicated landscape of the Democratic Party, with its centrist and more liberal elements. She has plenty of critics but also legions of admirers. She often provides liberal cover for more moderate members willing to join her on issues. She even works with Republicans.

Issues she has taken up in recent years illustrate the point. Lee has championed easing travel restrictions on Cuba, a bipartisan notion until President Donald Trump stirred the pot with a Cold War redux. She has joined Republicans to extend the 2020 Census deadline and to make it easier for former prison inmates to earn Pell grants for their education. She has attracted Republican support for legislation to protect California parks and has reciprocated by co-sponsoring legislation to protect Florida’s coast. She supports racial truth-telling and reconciliation, but only for those willing to acknowledge responsibility and be held accountable.

Not that anyone should mistake her for a centrist. Her bipartisan forays notwithstand- ing, Lee is a stalwart liberal, willing to seek common ground but not at the expense of principle. Indeed, she may be best known for her loneliest vote: Lee was the only member of either party to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force that was the basis for America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Only three days after the Sept. 11 attacks on America, she stood on the House floor and spoke about her vote. Her voice trembled. She said she had a “heavy heart” for those injured and killed.

But then she added:

“Let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control. I have agonized over this vote, but I came to grips with it today, and I came to grips with opposing this resolution during the very painful yet very beautiful memorial service. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said: ‘As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.’”

In the days that followed, she amplified those comments, voicing concern that the authorization was so broad it would invite presidential overreach and entangle the U.S. in long, difficult conflicts.

The final House vote was 420-1.

The response was as withering as it was predictable. Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic read 12 boxes of Lee’s mail from that period and found reams of letters calling her a “dog,” a “mutt,” a “disgrace,” a “communist,” a “stupid woman” and a “crass, selfish politician.”

Twenty years later, American forces would remain in Afghanistan and Iraq, a testament to Lee’s fears of embarking on conflicts with no clear path to victory or disengagement. What she did and said in 2001 was controversial and isolating, but she was also largely correct.

Asked to reflect on her vote after two decades, Lee declined to claim vindication: “I’m sorry that what I said came true.”

Two attacks on Washington

LEE HAS BEEN FORCED TO FLEE THE CAPITOL TWICE, once on Sept. 11, 2001, and again on Jan. 6, 2021. Both times were in response to attacks on the American government, once by Al Qaeda and, more recently, from White supremacists and other supporters of President Trump. Like so many others, Lee was shocked without being very surprised. She wore tennis shoes to work on Jan. 6 because she was worried about the possibility of trouble from Trump’s unruly base.

With Trump gone, some Democrats are eager to turn the page, to focus on ending the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuilding the economy, which collapsed because of Trump’s failed response to the coronavirus. Others are less willing to move on, more preoccupied with getting to the bottom of the Capitol insurrection and other catastrophes during the Trump years. Characteristically, Lee argues for both, a reminder that this is someone whose birth was desecrated by racism and who launched her career in thrall of Shirley Chisholm’s promises of change.

Lee supported President Joe Biden’s $1.9-trillion recovery package, while arguing that more was needed. She agrees the country must move forward, but she insists that it also reckon with other Trump calamities. She wants a day of truth and reconciliation. In that same vein, Lee visited El Paso a couple years ago. It brought her back in time, but she noticed evidence of change. She took in a movie at the Plaza. She saw BlacKkKlansman.

Still a student of Ron Dellums, she is determined to look for common ground but not to yield principle in search of it. Lee says Congress has to do two things at once: build progress and reflect.

“We have to learn the lessons of the past four years,” she said. “It’s vital to heal, but you can’t do that without the truth.”

Jim Newton

Jim Newton

Jim Newton is a veteran author, teacher and journalist who spent 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief, editorial page editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of four critically acclaimed books of biography and history, including "Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown." He teaches in Communication Studies and Public Policy at UCLA.

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