Ulysses R. Lee, the son of a bank teller and a transit authority worker, was raised in New York. While in high school, he joined the Brooklyn NAACP Youth chapter. He moved to Greensboro, N.C., to attend North Carolina A&T State University in 1961. As a student at A&T, Lee participated in many local civil rights demonstrations, including the pickets at S&W Cafeteria and the Center Theater. After the resignation of Bill Thomas in fall 1963, Lee was elected chairman of the Greensboro chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which he served through 1964.
Following graduationfrom A&T in 1965, Lee worked for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) aiding in voter registration drives in Rock Hill, S.C., before returning to his native New York.