AS A KOREAN UNDER JAPANESE OCCUPATION, LEE JOINED THE JAPANESE ARMY AIR FORCE.
Then, the Korean War waited in the wings. Lee left for America six months before war broke out.
That is when Lee’s eventual journey to West Virginia University became “the beginning of an unbroken series of karma,” he says.
Now, nearly 70 years later, Lee is revered as the “godfather of Asian-American journalism.”
Not bad for someone with zero concept of journalism before entering the U.S.
Lee made history as the first Asian immigrant to be hired by a mainstream U.S. daily newspaper, the Kingsport Times and News in Tennessee.
For the Charleston Gazette, he covered political corruption and the plight of coal miners in southern West Virginia. At the Sacramento Union, he investigated the wrongful conviction of Korean immigrant Chol Soo Lee, whose death row sentence was overturned in part because of Lee’s aggressive reporting. And, as tensions rose between blacks and Koreans in Los Angeles around the time of the Rodney King riots, Lee launched The Korea Times English Edition from L.A.
“I can’t help but be philosophical,” Lee said. “My life started at WVU. It’s karma.”
K.W. LEE. PHOTO BY ALEX WILSON.
First, he settled in Tennessee by enrolling into what he called “a private, reform school for public school rejects.” He then wound up at Tennessee Tech where he met his first English instructor, Guy Stewart, a West Virginia native who later served as dean of the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism (now the Reed College of Media).
Stewart took a liking to Lee. The Stewarts — Guy, his wife and their two kids — invited Lee to travel to West Virginia with them.
“This was in the 1950s, so there were no turnpikes or interstates,” Lee said. “Can you imagine me — a Korean guy — riding along in the back with two kids and all these pots and pans? There were endless steep curves. I told him, ‘Mr. Stewart, stop, please. I want to go back.’”
Stewart urged Lee to study journalism, a craft unbeknownst to him in Korea. So he entered WVU where he met another mentor, journalism Dean P.I. Reed, who helped jumpstart his reporting career.
“To me, P.I. Reed was like a biblical Moses,” Lee said. “He was a bedrock conservative from Ohio with an old English accent. He was a typical patrician. Very stern, but soft on the inside. Eventually, I learned the magic of English words and reading.”
At the time, the journalism school was tucked away in Woodburn Hall. Lee recalled spending several nights studying and sleeping on the third floor.
It was during this time at WVU that Lee got the privilege to interview the sitting president of the United States, Harry S. Truman. One of Lee’s classmates knew U.S. Sen. Harley Kilgore, D-W.Va., who helped arrange the interview.
“My friend drove me to Washington, D.C.,” Lee said. “I was a bumbling, struggling foreign student. I didn’t fully realize at the time that I was actually going to interview the president.”
After WVU, Lee continued his path to journalistic prominence. He estimated writing hundreds of articles about coal, civil rights, election fraud, corruption and poverty in southern West Virginia, though not everyone gave him a warm welcome. He remembered how Mingo County officials called the Charleston Gazette newsroom to tell his bosses, “Don’t send that Chinaman back down here.”
“My last battles were writing about Mingo County,” he said. “That’s where I left my heart. We spent five years fighting against that machine — the Mingo County machine — the most corrupt machine east of Chicago.
“I got lost there all the time. I was the disoriented Oriental down there. But if you got stuck in the part of the country down in a hollow, someone would help you out and drive you to your destination.”
Nothing thwarted Lee’s trajectory to the truth.
Assigned to the race beat in the 1960s, Lee was ordered by Charleston Gazette Publisher Ned Chilton to “open up the Jim Crow places.” Lee followed through on this assignment without hesitation.
One tavern in Cedar Grove, W.Va., still had a “whites only” sign in its front window. Lee went to the tavern and the owner pulled a gun on him. Lee later returned with a black colleague who spoke with the owner. Lee said the owner this time whipped out a razor blade — and went over to scrape “whites only” off the sign.
Perhaps Lee is most famously known as the crusading journalist who helped uncover the wrongful conviction of a Korean immigrant on death row. In Sacramento, he penned 120 articles over a five-year period on Chol Soo Lee, who was implicated in a 1973 San Francisco Chinatown gangland murder. The articles led to a retrial and he was released from San Quentin in 1983.
K.W. LEE DISPLAYS A NEWSPAPER FEATURING CHOL SOO LEE OUTSIDE OF A MOVIE THEATER PLAYING "TRUE BELIEVER," A 1989 DRAMA STARRING JAMES WOOD AND ROBERT DOWNEY JR. THAT WAS LOOSELY BASED ON LEE'S INVESTIGATIVE ARTICLES. PHOTO PROVIDED.In the 1990s, Lee would play a role in covering the civil unrest engulfing Los Angeles. When most Americans reflect on that time, they view it as a black vs. white struggle that sprouted from an act of police brutality caught on tape.
But for Lee and other Korean immigrants in the L.A.-area, the riots that happened 25 years ago transcended that.
Korean-Americans refer to the 1992 riots as “Saigu,” meaning “four-two-nine,” signifying the date of April 29, 1992, when the riots began. Once a jury acquitted four LAPD officers of using excessive force against Rodney King, all hell broke loose on the streets over the next six days. Within that time, more than 50 people died and more than 2,000 were injured. More than 3,600 fires were set and more than 1,000 buildings were destroyed, accounting for approximately $1 billion in property damage.
At the center of it all was the Korean-American community where many stores were targeted and vandalized.
At the time, Lee ran the only English-language newspaper for Koreans in the city. He believed that most media outlets in the area exploited the riots and further fanned the flames.
“To me, that’s the nation’s first media-fanned bogus race war,” Lee said. “Los Angeles is the most cutthroat media market, and I felt that they pitted the blacks against the Koreans.”
Lee had worked as a consultant for an NBC affiliate in California where he got a glimpse of the inner workings of television news.
“May sweeps was the life and death of every TV station,” he said. “America’s greatest upheaval started April 29. Any racial incident is tailor-made for May sweeps.”
Today Lee, 89, remains in Sacramento. His wife Peggy, whom he met in Charleston, passed away six years ago. He has survived stomach and liver cancer. And though journalism has changed over the years — he called his primary weapon the typewriter — Lee is still as fiery and unfiltered as ever.
THIS CARTOON, DRAWN BY PAUL DUGINSKI, SERVED AS A FAREWELL TO LEE WHEN HE LEFT THE SACRAMENTO UNION IN 1979.He can be that way, with all that good karma that’s followed him from West Virginia.
Or maybe it’s just in the way he’s approached his life — and reporting.
“I never listen to rhetoric,” he said. “I judge people by what they do. The left-wingers and the right-wingers in American journalism … it’s all bull, and they’re like hawks. There’s a bird’s-eye view and a worm’s-eye view. I represent the worm’s-eye view.”