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A Sacramento lighthouse: William Lee, founder of city’s African American newspaper, dies

William Lee was a giant in Sacramento. He not only made history, he documented it for more than 50 years as the publisher of The Sacramento Observer, the African American newspaper he founded and ran for so long that Lee and his business became institutions in the state capital.

A dignified, thoughtful man whose publication created and fostered a sense of place, a sense of pride and a sense of community, Lee died over the weekend at 83. He had been in failing health for some time, but his passing is a moment of importance because Lee was the product of a Sacramento before there were African American elected officials, judges, doctors and lawyers.

Those milestones and many others were documented in the pages of the Observer – in countless photos and stories – that are the definitive record of the establishment of an African American community in Sacramento. For that reason and many others, Lee was not only a publisher. He was a visionary.

“It’s hard to put into context the depth and breadth of his impact,” said Lee’s son, Larry, on Monday. “He was really a community and bridge builder. He was able to speak to heads of state and people who were impoverished.”

In November of 1962, Lee saw the need for a then tiny African American community in Sacramento to have a lighthouse that would illuminate its triumphs and losses. As in other communities throughout America, Sacramento’s African American newspaper told stories too often overlooked in the mainstream press. Lee never lost sight of the importance of this work and what it meant for his generation and beyond.

What greater legacy for a newspaperman than to have the dream of his publication outlive him?

Opinion

The Observer will live on under the leadership of Larry Lee, the youngest son of the late William and Kathryn C. Lee, who both had kept the Observer going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the late 1980s and any number of other calamities facing print publications.

William Lee had no newspaper experience when he had and two partners decided to start a publication of their own. Lee was only 26. But even at that young age, Lee sensed a financial and cultural possibility. America was in the middle of a Civil Rights revolution. Seismic events like the Great Migration of African Americans from south to north and Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball had been chronicled first in African American publications such as the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier.

With great enthusiasm, Lee stepped into that fight with his own publication that he hoped would educate and inspire African Americans in Sacramento about the momentous events led by African Americans in other communities.

Lee championed African American politicians who became pioneers at the state Capitol. He became close to former governor and then President Ronald Reagan. He helped push for Martin Luther King’s birthday to be honored in California. When Muhammad Ali or Louis Armstrong came through town, they sat down with Lee.

“The offices of the Observer are like a history of California,” said Scott Syphax, an entrepreneur and KVIE talk show host whose family was helped by Lee’s when they first moved to Sacramento in the early 1970s.

Lee’s career of more than 50 years as the publisher of the Observer may be the longest tenure of any publisher in California, Larry Lee said. Lee was twice selected as a judge for the Pulitzer Prizes and his publication was named the best African American newspaper in America six times, Larry Lee said.

His life will be celebrated at a public viewing and community celebration on Monday from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Center of Praise Ministries at 2223 Capitol Ave. There will be a memorial and celebration of his life on Oct 1 at 11 a.m. at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church.

Lee was born May 29, 1936, in Austin, Texas and his family moved to Sacramento during the latter stages of World War II when he was around eight. The African American community was less than 2 percent of the city’s overall population. Lee grew up in Del Paso Heights and was a graduate of Grant Union High School.

“He was always very proud of his North Sacramento roots,” Larry Lee said.

He leaves behind a son dedicated to keeping his vision alive for at least another generation. There is a charter school – William Lee College Prep – already named in his honor. And there is the Observer, a lighthouse for a community and much more.

Many of us hope to leave a legacy. William Lee did. What a man he was.

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