Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Barbee served in the United States Navy during World War II. In 1949, he graduated from LeMoyne-Owen College. Barbee moved to Madison, Wisconsin to study for his law degree at the University of Wisconsin Law School. He dropped out of law school due to racial problems with the faculty but later completed law school. In 1962, he moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he initiated a federal lawsuit which resulted in the integration of the Milwaukee Public Schools. From 1965 until 1977, he served in the Wisconsin State Assembly. While in the legislature, Barbee led efforts to end housing discrimination, legalize abortion, legalize marijuana and advance human rights.
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