Academic journal article Asian American Policy Review

Twenty-Five Years Later: Lessons Learned from the Free Chol Soo Lee Movement

Academic journal article Asian American Policy Review

Twenty-Five Years Later: Lessons Learned from the Free Chol Soo Lee Movement

Article excerpt

In 1973, Chol Soo Lee, a Korean immigrant, was arrested as a murder suspect in a gang killing in San Francisco's Chinatown. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Three years later, he self-defensively killed a fellow prison inmate, resulting in his transfer to death row. In 1978, investigative journalist Kyung-Won ("K.W.") Lee helped to expose the unfairness of the Chinatown murder trial and raised compelling doubts that pointed to Chol Soo Lee's innocence and wrongful conviction. Within months, Chol Soo Lee's case began to galvanize a broad and diverse coalition of political activists, united in their demand for justice and Chol Soo Lee's release from prison.

This convergence marked a defining moment for the fledgling Asian American movement as it was the first pan-Asian American activism to receive nationwide and even international attention. When Korean Americans rallied to help one of their own, many were surprised by the unprecedented support they received from other Asian ethnic groups. Meanwhile, the idealistic young adults who led many of the movement's key initiatives found their lives transformed by the experience. Through collective grassroots organizing, they saved a man's life and secured his release and exoneration. Many took this lesson profoundly to heart and pursued lifetime careers in social and public service.

More than twenty-five years later, they still recall the movement with a sense of wonderment at its power. Yet, not all outcomes were positive. As a real human being, not just a symbol to rally around, Chol Soo Lee struggled to adjust to freedom. His story raises troubling questions about lack of support for postincarceration reentry, increases in Asian youths at risk of criminalization, and class-based divides and prejudices within Asian ethnic groups. As such, lessons yet to be learned from the Chol Soo Lee movement continue to challenge Asian America.


Without the formation of a pan-Asian American movement, Chol Soo Lee's life could have ended in execution. In 1973, only a handful of people cared about Chol Soo. The earliest efforts on his behalf came from his mother, Mea Yea, and two young activists, Ranko Yamada and Tom Kim. Together, they struggled to galvanize support and raise money (Furutani 1983).

Yamada, poised for a career as a civil rights attorney, had the prescience to see the wider implications of Chol Soo Lee's story, years before his case gained popularity. She and Tom Kim both embodied the zeitgeist of the early 1970s--a passion for social justice inherited from the civil rights movement. As activists, they stood at the fulcrum on which Chol Soo Lee's fate hinged. A newly forming Asian American movement looking for its first cause celebre would allow the story's hero to transform from a hapless individual victim to a potent public symbol of coalition politics. Tom Kim, advocate for the Korean Community Service Center and for youth programs at the time in Chinatown, is a third-generation Korean American. To him, it was inconceivable that a Korean kid could commit a Chinatown gang killing. Tom Kim eventually approached fellow Korean American K.W. Lee, an award-winning investigative reporter, and urged him to make Chol Soo Lee's case into news. An innocent young man, framed by the system and trapped on death row, was a story worth telling. When K.W. started telling it, people started listening.

K.W. Lee himself recalls stumbling across Chol Soo's Korean name in a court report (Furutani 1983, 75). The details of K.W.'s first contact remain a mystery, but one thing is historically clear: once K.W. got interested, he exercised all powers of persuasion to interest everyone else. He asked Asian Americans to stake their collective future on the case, calling them to heroic action in a fight against injustice, racism, and death. As an investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize nominee for the Sacramento Union, K. …

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