Lionel Wilson, lawyer, judge, and politician, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on March 4, 1915 to Jules and Louise Wilson. In 1918 the family moved to Oakland, California, where his parents believed a smaller and less-noticeable black community would afford them greater freedoms and less discrimination. Following his elementary schooling Wilson attended McClymonds High School in Oakland, a predominantly white institution. After graduating with honors in 1932 he took a position at a local newspaper.
In 1939 Wilson received a Baccalaureate degree in Economics from the University of California at Berkley. During and after his undergraduate education he worked as a porter, sugar-factory laborer, and dishwasher, while pursuing a career in athletics. Standing only five feet, five inches tall and weighing a diminutive 130 pounds, Wilson nonetheless quickly distinguished himself as a gifted tennis, basketball, and baseball player. His athletic prowess attracted talent scouts, and soon followed a short-lived semi-professional baseball career. He retired in 1943 however, as racially exclusionist policies in professional sports precluded his further advancement.
Disappointed, Wilson enlisted in the United States Army and served in a combat unit in Europe during the last two years of World War II. By the end of the war he was promoted to First Sergeant. Upon his return in 1946 Wilson was accepted at Hastings School of Law in San Francisco, where he received a law degree in 1949. Immediately following graduation he began working in civil law. Specializing in civil rights cases, he regularly offered pro bono work to low-income individuals.
Lionel Wilson first ran for the Berkeley City Council in 1953 and later in 1955, but was not elected on either occasion. In 1960, however, he became the first African American judge of Alameda County when he was appointed to the Oakland Municipal Court by Governor Edmund G. Brown, Sr. Four years later he was appointed to the Alameda County Superior Court by Brown. In