“American pop culture is stupid. It takes Jeremy Lin to make the media go hog wild.”
These are the words of famed civil rights journalist K.W. Lee on the New York Knicks point guard. Lee, a Korean American, is not impressed with his fellow Asian American’s rise to fame in both the Asian community and the sports arena. As the first Asian immigrant to work for mainstream daily publications in the U.S., Lee has not only brought attention to such social issues as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, but his work in the field of investigative journalism helped to organize one of the earliest pan-Asian American movements.
Kyung Won Lee was born June 1, 1928 in south central Kaesong, North Korea amid the Japanese colonization of Korea. As a student, Lee experienced what he refers to as “Japanization.” His high school was known for extreme hazing.
“What blacks experienced in the Deep South with integration into Jim Crow schools was a summer picnic compared to my high school experience,” Lee said of his integration into an all-Japanese high school in 1941.
In 1950, he immigrated to the United States to study journalism at West Virginia University.
“In America, anything is possible. In 1950, I had nothing in my pockets,” he said. “I had no fear of starving tomorrow.”
With that mindset, Lee went on to receive his master’s degree from the University of Illinois in 1955. In 1956, he embarked on a lifelong career in journalism that started with newspapers such as the Kingsport Times-News in Tennessee and the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, the latter of which he became the first Asian immigrant to write for a daily American newspaper.
Throughout his career, Lee has paid special attention to social injustices. In addition to the Civil Rights Movement, he has covered such stories as black lung disease among coal miners in the Appalachian Mountains; the 1992 L.A. riots; and the infamous Chol Soo Lee case during the 1970s in which a series of over 100 investigative articles that Lee wrote acquitted Chol Soo Lee, a wrongfully convicted Korean immigrant on death row for murder. His series initiated the Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee, one of the first Asian American justice movements to sweep the nation. Furthermore, through his work, Lee helped foster a political voice for Korean Americans and facilitate community organization. In 1998, Lee donated the Chol Soo Lee papers to UC Davis, where they are now archived.
“He gave a voice to the voiceless before anyone else did,” said Stephen Magagnini, UC Davis journalism lecturer and senior writer for The Sacramento Bee.
Richard Kim, assistant professor of Asian American studies at UC Davis and author of A Conversation with Chol Soo Lee and K.W. Lee, agreed.
“His work has been guided by an unwavering commitment to social justice for all peoples. In his pursuit of the common good, he has sought to uncover cases of corruption, injustice, and misuse of power of those who have been entrusted to serve the public good,” Kim said.
Kim admires Lee’s work.
“His commitment to issues of social justice has always been pursued by a strong sense of journalistic integrity, to make sure he got the story right,” Kim said. “He has carried himself with great dignity and humility despite his many achievements in the field of journalism.”
In 1972, Lee founded Koreatown Weekly, an English-language Korean American publication that was the first of its kind in the nation, and in 1990, he established the Korea Times English Edition. Yet despite all of Lee’s work and influence within the Asian American community, he remains unsatisfied with the representation, or lack thereof, of Asians in the media.
“Still, America is held up in this black-and-white paradigm: minorities versus majorities. The American tragedy is that we’re missing the Asian world.”
STEPHANIE B. NGUYEN can be reached at email@example.com.