Kyung Won “K.W.” Lee (‘53 BS)
As Dean Maryanne Reed of the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism noted, “K.W. Lee’s life reads like a fictional novel.” Considered the godfather of Asian American journalism and an unlikely hero committed to helping the underdog, Mr. Lee’s illustrious career as the first Korean American journalist has profoundly shaped the Korean American community consciousness and activism.
Born in 1928 in Kaesong, North Korea, K.W.’s activism started during the student democratization movement as a student at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea. In 1950, he immigrated to the United States on a student visa and studied journalism at West Virginia University where he received a bachelor’s degree, later receiving a master’s degree from the University of Illinois in 1955. He then became the first Asian immigrant hired by a mainstream daily newspaper when he reported for the Kingsport Times and News in Tennessee and the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. As an investigative reporter, K.W. covered a variety of human interest stories that focused on social justice, such as black lung disease among coal miners and “war on poverty” in the Appalachian Mountains, as well as the civil rights movement in Jim Crow South.
While at the Sacramento Union during the 1970s, K.W. initiated a series of investigatory pieces on Chol Soo Lee, an immigrant Korean who was racially profiled and wrongfully convicted in 1973 for a murder involving Chinese gangs in San Francisco’s Chinatown. His articles brought national and even international attention to a man already imprisoned and on death row for five years, sparking a grassroots mobilization of the Korean American and Asian American community for a retrial on his behalf. Along with other community leaders and activists, K.W. played a key role in the Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee, one of the earliest pan-Asian American movements for justice. Over the course of five years to Chol Soo Lee’s retrial and subsequent acquittal, K.W. produced over 100 articles shedding light on Chol Soo Lee’s plight and the inconsistencies surrounding his first trial. Entitled the Chol Soo Lee papers, these articles were recently donated by K.W. and are now archived at U.C. Davis.
For K.W., the Chol Soo Lee movement demonstrated the lack of political voice and community organization among Korean Americans, and in response, he founded Koreatown Weekly, the first national English-language Korean American publication, in order to provide such a voice. Along with partners Randy Hagihara and Steve Chanecka, this effort became what K.W. would refer to as “I-5 Journalism,” since the trio shuttled between Sacramento and Los Angeles to put the paper together and later distribute it. However, as a paper ahead of its time, Koreatown Weekly folded in 1984 after five years in publication.
In 1990, K.W. established the English Edition to the Korea Times in Los Angeles. During this crucial time in Korean American history, K.W. already sensed the escalating tensions between African American customers and monolingual Korean immigrant storekeepers in seething inner cities that had been neglected and abandoned. When Los Angeles erupted in flames on April 29, 1992, K.W.’s premonitions and worst fears came true. As the Korean American community experienced a second victimization by mainstream media’s insensitive portrayal of sa-i-gu (4-2-9 in Korean), ethnic publications like the Korea Times English Edition became all the more important in providing fair coverage of its community, as well as becoming its mouthpiece to the outside world. At the time, K.W. was hospitalized as a result of Hepatitis-B and a liver transplant. From his hospital bed, he watched the events of sa-i-gu unfold and supervised his reporters. K.W. continues to contribute articles on cutting-edge issues for ethnic and mainstream periodicals. He founded the Korean American Journalists Association at a time when only a half dozen fellow Koreans worked in the mainstream media. Now they number an estimated 250 journalists.
During his career, he has received a plethora of awards and distinctions, including Asian American Journalists Association’s first ever Lifetime Achievement Award, the John Anson Ford Award by the Human Relations Commission of L.A. County, and the first Asian American recipient of the Free Spirit Award from the Freedom Forum in 1994. In 1997, he was inducted into the Newseum’s Journalism History Gallery. In 2000, he was profiled in “Crusaders, Scoundrels, Journalists: The Newseum’s Most Intriguing Newspeople,” under the category of “barrier breakers” alongside the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, Alice Stone Blackwell, and Randy Shilts.
Now in semi-retirement, K.W. continues to be active as a spokesperson for the Korean American community. In universities such as U.C.L.A. and U.C. Davis, he has lectured on investigative journalism in communities of color, inspiring a new generation of Asian American journalists seeking social justice and fair representation for their communities. In his quest to rally the second generation as activists and to empower their community, K.W. is ever present at leadership conventions and other speaking engagements.
K.W. has three children and six grandchildren. He lives in Rancho Cordova, California.