Congresswoman Barbara Lee Knows What It Takes to Fight Power

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Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Photo: Bennett Raglin/WireImage

Congresswoman Barbara Lee is accustomed to fighting. For most of her career, she’s had to: She first got into politics as a young, black single mother of two kids, then campaigned for Shirley Chisholm, the first woman to ever run for president. Once she was elected to the House of Representatives, she became one of the first generation of black women to ever be elected to Congress.

Despite her political progress, Lee is no stranger to setbacks. One of Lee’s career-long causes is the repeal of the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) — a “blank check” for the U.S. to use military force abroad without congressional approval. After 16 years of trying to get it repealed, in July she was defeated again by Paul Ryan when he stripped the amendment from a defense-spending bill. But the congresswoman doesn’t see Ryan’s move as a defeat. In fact, she welcomes the challenge. “It was very underhanded and undemocratic for Paul Ryan [to do this],” she said. “But we’re going to get this done.”

The Cut spoke with Lee about how she learned to stay focused, what it was like working with Shirley Chisholm, and why she sees the incidents of hate in Charlottesville, Virginia, as an opportunity.

You were inspired to get into politics because of Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman to run for president. Tell me how that happened.
I was the black-student-union president at Mills College, an all-women’s college in Oakland, California. I was taking a government class and part of my course requirement was to work on a political campaign. I told my professor that I was definitely going to flunk because the politicians who were running locally at the time weren’t speaking to issues that were important to me. I was a single mom on public assistance, raising two boys. I was a really active part of the Black Panther community.

Around the same time, I invited Shirley Chisholm to come to my class to speak, and I had no idea she was running for president. She spoke to us about immigrant rights; she talked about ending poverty; she explained why she was against the Vietnam War; she talked about education and child care. I could not believe that this progressive black woman was running for president and that the press wasn’t covering it.

I went up to her after her talk and told her my dilemma: I didn’t want to work on a political campaign that I didn’t believe in. She insisted that I register to vote, and I asked my professor if I could work on Chisholm’s local campaign. Shirley had told me, if I really believed in what I stood for, I would get involved with politics because we had to make change from the inside.

I ended up organizing Shirley Chisholm’s campaigns in Northern California with three other individuals. I got an A in the class, and went on to Miami as a Shirley Chisholm delegate. After that, I worked as an intern for Congressman Ron Dellums and ended up going to Washington, D.C. But it was really Shirley Chisholm who encouraged me to actually get involved in the first place.

How did you manage so much as a young single mom?
Mills College is a women’s college, so it was very supportive. Sometimes I wouldn’t have money for day care, so I would bring the kids to class. Throughout history, black women have always had to learn how to juggle. I think part of what motivates me and others to do this juggling is because we want to see change. We don’t want to see people going through what we went through. We want this country to live up to its creed. My faith keeps me going, too. I always draw from scripture.

As a black woman, you learn time management early on. My mother worked; she took care of her elderly parents; she raised three girls. She had a couple marriages that didn’t work out, and she kept moving forward. She was one of the 12 students to integrate the University of Texas in El Paso.

When my mother went to deliver me in the hospital, they wouldn’t admit her because she was black. My grandmother’s father was Irish, and she had to explain that to the hospital so that they’d admit my mother. She was on a gurney and they left her there. No one came to attend to her. A doctor finally saw her and pulled her into the operating room, and it was too late for a C-section. She literally almost died giving birth to me. That’s what I think about while I’m doing what I do. I think about the people who came before us: Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth.

How do you make sense of the Trump era and the events in Charlottesville?
Understand: Racism and institutional racism, sexism, bias, hatred, bigotry are all part of the fabric of this country. Donald Trump’s agenda services the alt-right. This is America. This didn’t just happen overnight. I’ll give you an example. A city that is currently in my district used to be a very racist place. This is a city in California, mind you! It was known for burning crosses. Historically, African-Americans drove around this city to get where they needed to go. My mother could not even buy a house there. And now, I represent that city as its congresswoman.

When I started school, I couldn’t go to public school because I was black. This is in the not-so-distant past. I’m the 100th African-American ever to be elected to Congress. I’m the 20th black woman ever to be elected to Congress. We have to put that into historical context and look at what people did just to help me get here. I’ve come too far to get weary. This stuff is right in front of us now.

One of your long-standing causes has been repealing the AUMF, a law passed after 9/11 that authorizes military force in other countries without adequate approval from Congress. What has kept you so committed to this issue?
It was a blank check for military force and it could be used — and has been used — to wage war. In my opinion, the use of force should be the last option, the military option should be the last option. I’ve been trying to repeal it for years, but it takes persistence. Like everything, we have to see this as a long-term struggle. It was very underhanded and undemocratic for Paul Ryan to take it out from the defense-spending bill in July. It just disappeared. It shows you how dictatorial and how undemocratic they are. But we’re going to get this done. I won’t even call it a setback; it’s a major step forward.

What do you want to do next? What do you think the future holds for your career?
It all depends on my constituents and if they choose to reelect me. There are so many battles to fight: creating good-paying jobs, addressing pay equity with African-American women and people of color, fighting for PEPFAR in advancing toward a cure for HIV/AIDS. I have to fight to make sure that’s maintained and funded. There’s a lot of work to do. My work here is never done.

Barbara Lee Knows What It Takes to Fight Power