Ying Lee, Berkeley’s first Asian American city council member and anti-Vietnam war activist, died at the age of 90.
Lee had an active voice in left-wing politics throughout the course of her life as a first-generation Chinese immigrant, author and schoolteacher of 21 years. Her extensive social justice efforts for the anti-war and racial justice movements continued through her final years of life.
“She was a social justice leader and warrior, and it is a great loss for the Berkeley community,” said Tony Thurmond, California superintendent of public instruction. “We all owe her a debt of gratitude.”
Thurmond noted Lee was a personal inspiration throughout his career. He had the honor of presenting Lee with a Woman of the Year award at the California State Assembly in 2015 and said he keeps a photo from the event in his office as a reminder of her strong humility and leadership.
Thurmond commended Lee for her civility and composure in political debates, noting that despite her soft-spoken nature, Lee could “pack a punch” while championing important issues. He admired her family focus and added that she frequently loved talking about her children and grandchildren.
“She was gentle towards people but fierce with her ideals,” said City Councilmember Kate Harrison.
Lee captured her compelling upbringing in her book “Ying Lee: From Shanghai to Berkeley.”
Her story began in war-torn China; she and her mother walked across China from Shanghai to escape Japanese forces. After World War II, 13-year-old Lee and her mother came to San Francisco, where she later studied at the City College of San Francisco and graduated with a political science degree from UC Berkeley in 1953.
Philip Maldari, a host at KPFA radio and a friend of Lee’s, called the tale “heroic.” Maldari noted her honest and hardworking character earned her the respect of colleagues. He said Lee was what made Berkeley “special.”
Lee played an active role in the leftward shift of Berkeley’s City Council during her tenure from 1973 to 1977, according to Maldari. She made a particular impact on the anti-Vietnam War movement and the city of Berkeley’s alignment with campus student protests of that era, he added.
“I would hope that everyone in public service and in advocating would take a page out of her book and stand up for the causes that she believed in,” Thurmond said.
During her lifetime, Lee worked for the offices of Ronald Dellums and Barbara Lee, U.S. representatives.
She was also the wife of late UC Berkeley math professor John Kelley and a volunteer for Grandmothers Against the War, an anti-Iraq War group.
“Ying Lee will be remembered as a dedicated community leader and a fearless trailblazer,” said City Councilmember Rigel Robinson in an email.