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Trailblazers in Government: Celebrating Cal Alumni in Black History

February 7, 2019
by Kiley Treacy

Black Cal alumni trailblazers have made significant accomplishments in their fields. These individuals are honored for the notable impact they have made in their communities, through their professions, and in the world. Though there are many more notable Black Cal alumni in government, here is a glimpse at just a few individuals who have made a significant impact.

See a timeline of Pioneering Black Alumni in UC Berkeley History.

Walter Gordon ’18, J.D. ’22

walter gordon

A man of many firsts: the first All-American in football at Cal, first African American All-American on the West Coast, first African American to graduate from Berkeley Law, and first African American police officer in Berkeley1

When Walter Gordon ’18, J.D. ’22 arrived at UC Berkeley as an undergrad in 1914, he could not have known the enormous contributions he would make to both Berkeley and the surrounding community. During his time at Cal, Gordon became known for his talent on the football team, as he played every position on both offensive and defensive lines except center.2 His excellence in football landed him the titles of first All-American at Cal and first African American All-American on the West Coast.

Although he was a star player for the Golden Bears, the laws that called for segregation did not make it easy for Gordon to travel with his team, as he was not allowed to stay at the same accommodations as his teammates.3 Gordon did not let these injustices deter him from moving forward and doing his best at whatever he set his mind to. After earning his bachelor’s of arts degree in 1918, Gordon went on to become the assistant coach and scout for the Golden Bears while simultaneously becoming the city of Berkeley’s first African American police officer and attending Berkeley Law. In 1955, Gordon was the recipient of the Cal Alumni Association’s Alumnus of the Year award for his exceptional contribution to our community welfare.

Lionel Wilson ’38, J.D.

Broke barriers as Alameda County’s first African American judge and Oakland’s first African American mayor, despite the financial hardship and racial injustice he faced while pursuing higher education


During his undergraduate years at UC Berkeley, Wilson faced the challenge of having to support himself as a porter, sugar-factory laborer, and dishwasher as he put himself through school.6 Wilson persevered through this financial hardship, graduating with a baccalaureate degree in economics with a minor in political science in December of 1938.7 Upon graduating, Wilson began working on the Emergency Education Program (EEP), then at the North Oakland YMCA, before enlisting in the US Army. After serving in the Army during the last two years of World War II, Wilson returned to the Bay Area and attended Hastings School of Law, where he earned his law degree in 1949.8

In the years following, Wilson worked in civil law and held many civic leadership positions, including in the NAACP, before becoming the first African American judge of Alameda County in 1960. In 1977, Wilson earned another “first” title when he became the first African American Mayor of Oakland, serving the city for three consecutive terms.

Thelton Henderson ’55, J.D. ’62

Became the US Justice Department’s first Black lawyer in its civil rights division in 1962, the same year he earned his law degree from UC Berkeley


After earning his B.A. in political science from UC Berkeley in 1955, Henderson decided to continue his graduate education at Berkeley Law, where he was one of just two African American students in his class. In 1962, Henderson earned his J.D. and became the first African American lawyer in the Justice Department’s civil rights division, where he was assigned to monitor local law enforcement for the Kennedy administration.9

Henderson’s pursuit for justice in civil rights led him to the Jim Crow-era South, where he monitored police on civil rights cases and investigated the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.10 Upon returning to the Bay Area, Henderson began working at Stanford University in 1968 as an assistant dean, where he was the only African American professoriate at that time. At Stanford, he established a minority recruitment program. “[Stanford] graduated their first black in ’68, the year I went there,” he said, “There also wasn’t the tradition, black students, minority students didn’t think of Stanford when they were looking for law schools. So I had to develop a program to help the students that I did admit.”11

After leaving Stanford in 1977, Henderson established a law firm specializing in civil rights, and in 1980, he was appointed to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter. As a federal judge, Henderson has been a strong advocate for women and people of color. When Henderson struck down Proposition 209 in 1996, a voter-supported ban on public affirmative-action programs, he received backlash and his decision was ultimately reversed.

Despite the criticism he received for his advocacy for minority groups, Henderson stood by his lifelong fight for civil rights and received many awards in his professional journey including, but not limited to, the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award, the Distinguished Service Award from the National Bar Association, and the Pearlstein Civil Rights Award from the Anti-Defamation League.12 In 2008, Henderson was recognized as the Alumnus of the Year by the Cal Alumni Association for his contribution to our national, state, and community welfare.

Warren Widener ’60, J.D. ’67

Berkeley Law graduate and director of the Berkeley branch of the NAACP who tackled issues of discrimination and advocated for minorities as Berkeley’s first Black mayor


Widener graduated from UC Berkeley with his bachelor’s degree in rhetoric in 1960 and then served as a captain in the Air Force before returning to Berkeley for law school. After gaining leadership experience as president of the Urban Housing Institution, he was elected to Berkeley City Council in 1969. Widener held other leadership titles in the Berkeley community, such as president of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and director of the Berkeley branch of the NAACP.13 The influential roles he took in the community led to his election as the first Black mayor of Berkeley in 1971.

During his two terms as mayor, Widener was celebrated for helping remove the train tracks that divided black and white neighborhoods in Berkeley. Although he was defeated in his bid for mayoral re-election in 1979, Widener continued to be a public-service leader by serving on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. During his four years on the Board, Widener played a significant role in developing a military housing program that would eventually become a model for the rest of the United States.14

Ron Dellums M.S.W. ’62

Dedicated his life to fighting racial injustices through social work and politics. Became the first African American from Northern California to be elected to the US House of Representatives and the first African American to be named chairman of the Armed Services Committee


After spending two years in the Marine Corps, Dellums attended Oakland City College before transfering to San Francisco State, where he earned his B.A. in psychology in 1960. Dellums began his graduate work at UC Berkeley shortly thereafter, and graduated with a master’s degree in social work in 1962.

For the rest of the 1960s, Dellums worked in several social service positions and started his political career in 1967, when he was appointed to Berkeley City Council.15 He made history in 1971 when he became the first African American from Northern California to be elected to Congress. In his second year of Congress, Dellums called for the first US legislation to impose economic sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime; it took 14 years for the measure to be enacted as the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986.16

In 1993, Dellums became the first African American to be named chairman of the Armed Services Committee, a role that gave him oversight for defense appropriations and global military operations.17 After serving thirteen terms as a member of the US House of Representatives, Dellums was elected Mayor of Oakland in 2007.

Lee P. Brown M.A. ’68, Ph.D. ’70

Used his background in sociology and criminology to focus on crime prevention, leading him to become the first Black commissioner of police in Atlanta, Houston, and New York City, and eventually to election as Houston’s first African American mayor


While working as a patrol officer, Brown earned his B.S. in criminology from Fresno State University in 1960 and his master’s degree in sociology at San Jose State University in 1964. After working as an assistant professor at his alma mater San Jose State, Brown decided to go back for a second master’s degree, this time in criminology, from UC Berkeley.18 With two master’s degrees in hand, Brown decided to further his education once more by earning a Ph.D. in criminology from UC Berkeley in 1970.

For the next few years, Brown would bring his knowledge of criminology to Howard University, where he was appointed associate director of the Institute for Urban Affairs and Research.19 In 1978, he returned to law enforcement as the first African American commissioner of police for Atlanta, Georgia. He later became the first African American chief of police for the city of Houston, Texas in 1982, and then became the first African American Police Commissioner for the City of New York in 1990.20

As Police Commissioner of what was then the world’s largest police department, Brown often spoke of reforming how law enforcement operates. He wanted to focus more on community policing: officers would spend less time driving around in patrol cars and more time walking around the community interacting with its residents. He also wanted to address the roots of crime, saying: “Traditional approaches are not solving the problem. Our legacy should not be more prisons. We must look at the underlying factors that produce crime. And if we’re serious, we must make a commitment to deal with them. That means meaningful employment for all Americans. That means an educational system that produces people who can read and write, so they can get a job.”21

In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Brown to be the Director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, a position he held until he resigned in 1995 to teach at Rice University.22 In 1997, Brown was elected Houston’s first African American Mayor and served two terms. In 2004, Brown achieved distinction as Alumnus of the Year by the Cal Alumni Association for his immeasurable impact on our national, state, and community welfare.

Barbara Lee M.S.W. ’75

UFirst Black woman from Northern California to be elected to State Senate, and the first woman to be elected to serve California’s 13th (formerly 9th) district


Lee’s involvement in breaking barriers for minorities began during her high school days, when she worked with the local NAACP to integrate her high school cheerleading squad. Her road to higher education had more challenges than most traditional students, as she became a mother at seventeen and raised two sons on her own while attending Mills College. After graduating from Mills, she enrolled in UC Berkeley’s Master’s of Social Work program, where she founded the Community Health Alliance for Neighborhood Growth and Education (CHANGE, Inc.) with the mission to help provide mental health services to some of the East Bay’s most vulnerable population.23

Lee graduated in from Cal in 1975. With her M.S.W. in hand, Lee began working for Congressman Ron Dellums M.S.W. ’62 and continued on his staff for eleven years, during which she was one of only a handful of women and people of color to hold a senior position on Capitol Hill.24 Her professional journey in politics took a brief hiatus as she started a private business, but she returned to politics and was elected to California State Assembly in 1990, then to the California State Senate in 1996, making her the first Black woman from Northern California to be elected to State Senate.25

Lee is known for her advocacy for minority groups, including the LGBTQ+ community. She was an early champion of LGBTQ+ issues, demonstrated by her authorship of the 1995 California Schools Hate Crimes Reduction Act.26 In 1998 she became the US Representative for California’s 9th congressional district (now the 13th), a position previously held by her former boss, Ron Dellums. She was the first woman to be elected to represent this district, which is based in Oakland and serves most of Alameda County.