J. Kenneth Lee was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, on November 1, 1923. He was raised and educated in Hamlet, N.C., and then moved to Greensboro in 1941 to attend North Carolina A&T State University. Lee was drafted into the armed forces in spring of 1944, but returned to Greensboro two years later and earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from A&T. After graduation, Lee had difficulty finding a company that would employ an African American engineer, but was hired at A&T as an engineering instructor and then established his own technical training school, Dellwatch Radio and Electronics, in Winston-Salem.
In 1949, Lee made the decision to attend law school. He was denied admission to the University of North Carolina, but was persuaded by law students at the North Carolina College for Negroes (now NCCU) to join a suit against UNC for denying them admission based on race. When the Supreme Court ruled in their favor on appeal, Lee and another student, Harvey Beech, enrolled in the law school at UNC. In 1952, Lee earned his J.D. and returned to Greensboro, where he operated a radio and television repair business until he was named assistant state counsel for the NAACP in 1955.
Lee represented thousands of clients in criminal and civil rights-related cases across the state, including several public golf course, swimming pool, and school desegregation suits. Lee was also instrumental in founding the American Federal Savings and Loan, a Greensboro institution dedicated to providing loans to African Americans, which he served as a member of the board for over 30 years. Lee retired from the legal profession in 1973 due to illness, but continued to volunteer for the NAACP.