Chol Soo Lee, whose wrongful conviction helped spark the Asian American Movement, dies at 62

Chol Soo Lee, whose 1974 wrongful conviction for first-degree murder, helped spark the modern Asian American Movement.
Chol Soo Lee, whose 1974 wrongful conviction for first-degree murder, helped spark the modern Asian American Movement, died on Wednesday at the age of 62.

It was a real-life “Serial“.

On June 7, 1973, Korean American Chol Soo Lee was arrested in California and charged with the first-degree murder in the shooting death of Yip Yee Tak, a leader of a local Chinatown gang. Evidence against Lee was shaky, and hinged primarily upon witness identification of Lee in a suspect lineup; however, physical descriptions of the shooter given prior to the lineup did not resemble Lee. Based mostly on this evidence, however, Lee was tried and convicted in 1974 of Tak’s murder, and sentenced to life without parole. Six months into his sentence, Lee killed fellow inmate, Morrison Needham — Lee claimed the killing was in self-defense after the white supremacist attacked him — and was sentenced to death row, making him the first Asian American on death row in San Quentin.

Lee’s case first came to public interest after journalist K.W. Lee, founder of the Korean American Journalists Association, first heard about Chol Lee and contacted him for an interview in 1977. K.W. Lee investigated Yip Yee Tak’s 1973 murder, and convinced of Chol Lee’s innocence,  he went on to pen over 120 articles in what became known as the “Alice in Chinatown Murder Case” investigative journalism series.

K.W. Lee’s writing asserting Chol Lee’s innocence captured the attention of Asian Americans around the country, who at the time were politically stratified. Efforts to win Chol Lee’s exoneration unified these disparate ethnic communities behind the growing Asian American Movement, earning Chol Lee a retrial and an eventual overturning of his murder conviction.

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12 life lessons I learned from the incredible Robin Williams


By now, you’ve heard the news: yesterday, Robin Williams died of apparent suicide at the age of 63. Depression has claimed yet another beautiful soul, and left the world a little bit emptier of laughter.

For myself as for many children of the 1980’s, Robin Williams — with his cheeky grin and seemingly boundless energy — shaped our childhood. After the jump, here are 12 life lesson I learned from the incredible Robin Williams.

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In Memoriam: James Shigeta, 85, an Asian American pioneer in Hollywood


Yesterday, Hollywood Reporter broke the news that James Shigeta, one of Hollywood’s most prominent Asian American actors of the 1960’s, passed away at the age of 85.

Shigeta broke into Hollywood at a time when Asian Americans still represented less than 1% of America. This was a time in Hollywood when racial minorities were still virtually unseen in front of (or behind) the camera. The use of overt blackface and yellowface — although in its waning years — remained an acceptable aspect of film and television entertainment, in conjunction with damning stereotypes. Hollywood’s attitudes towards racial minorities reflected popular America’s general intolerance: Jim Crow segregation was still alive and well in the Deep South. The Civil Rights Movement was still building steam. Less than two decades prior, the US government had forcibly incarcerated Japanese Americans in American concentration camps.

This was the Hollywood — and the American cultural landscape — that James Shigeta courageously broke his way into.

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Sign this petition to honour Yuri Kochiyama with a US Postal Stamp!

Photo credit: 18MillionRising
Photo credit: 18MillionRising

Last week, America lost a civil rights legend in Yuri Kochiyama. Kochiyama’s work inspired a generation of young activists — including many Asian American women like myself — towards social justice work.

Today, 18MillionRising is launching a petition that will be sent along with a formal written proposal to the US Postal Service’s Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, asking that Yuri Kochiyama be commemorated in an official stamp. This form of memorial seems meaningful; Yuri Kochiyama strongly believed in the power of mail as a form of political outreach, and reportedly only wanted to receive stamps on holidays so she could continue to send flyers for her many political and social justice causes.

 Act Now! If you agree that Kochiyama belongs on a commemorative stamp, please sign 18MillionRising’s petition requesting that the US Postal Service issue a commemorative Yuri Kochiyama stamp and share the petition with your friends!

The White House Remembers Yuri Kochiyama


Yesterday, the White House’s Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI) posted this post on the White House’s official blog. The post was written by Kiran Ahuj, WHIAAPI’s Executive Director.

Today, we honor the legacy of Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American activist who dedicated her life to the pursuit of social justice, not only for the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, but all communities of color.

Mary Yuriko Nakahara was born in 1921 in San Pedro, California. She and her family spent two years in an internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas during World War II, and the similarities she saw between the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II and African Americans in the Jim Crow South inspired her to dedicate her life to activism on behalf of marginalized communities. In the early 1960s, Yuri and her husband Bill Kochiyama, a decorated veteran of the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the U.S. Army, enrolled in the Harlem “freedom schools” to learn about black history and culture. Soon after, Yuri began participating in sit-ins and inviting Freedom Riders to speak at weekly open houses in the family’s apartment. She was a strong voice in the campaign for reparations and a formal government apology for Japanese American internees through the Civil Liberties Act, which President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1988.

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