By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
For Mel Kang, the path to becoming a civil rights activist in the 1960s and later, a community volunteer for several local organizations, has been one marked by a determination to be a part of the solution to injustice in the world.
A third-generation Korean American, he and other activists “would just do stuff.” His maternal grandfather emigrated to Chicago from Korea “around 1910,” he said, and his paternal grandfather moved from Hawaii to work as a farmer in Sacramento, Calif.
Kang, 72, said his parents met in Los Angeles, where he was born in 1943 and was raised.
He received his bachelor’s degree in History from California State College at Los Angeles in 1967.
While serving overseas in the Navy, he read “Three Lives for Mississippi,” a book written by William Bradford Huie about the 1964 abduction of civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney.
“They were murdered, so that really made an impression on me, and I had read some other things, too, by then,” Kang said.
“The assassination of Robert Kennedy (in 1968) and the debacle of the 1968 Democratic (National) Convention finally led me to join the civil rights movement in full swing across America.”
The deaths of President John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr. also made an impression.
“It came to a point where you just couldn’t sit by. I don’t think anybody that was politically aware could sit on the sidelines and not participate,” he said. “You couldn’t consciously ignore it, I don’t think, and that’s why I’m not exceptional in that regard at all. Everybody was faced with that.”
Discharged from military service in late 1968 with some knowledge about the farm workers movement in California, he and a friend attended a demonstration.
Kang said, “So I just went by the (United Farm Workers of America) office that week and asked if I could help.”
In 1970, he joined the UFW, a labor union for farm workers, because he wanted to participate in the civil rights movement and became part of its campaign.
“I saw it as a struggle for civil rights,” he said.
For the next three years, he spoke at churches and other labor unions, explaining the economic conditions and history of migrant workers.
“I stayed with them (UFW) long enough to learn about labor unions and the labor movement,” Kang said. “And I think also that labor unions represent the best hope for the middle class and for all workers, in general.”
He earned a teaching certificate from his alma mater in 1971 and taught adult education courses at Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore.
“I organized teachers and college faculty, all kinds of different people that just wanted to participate,” he said.
Filipino American farm labor and civil rights leader Philip Vera Cruz “also came to Oregon when I was organizing in Eugene,” Kang said.
Throughout his professional career, he says, working with the farm workers has been the best time. “I certainly felt the most fulfilled during that period,” he said.
Kang added, “It was a time when everybody was politically conscious even if you decided that you weren’t going to be politically conscious.”
In 1975, he earned his master’s in industrial and labor relations from the University of Oregon. He received his law degree from Antioch School of Law in Washington D.C. three years later and became a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) staff attorney.
He moved to Seattle in 1980 and worked on back-pay cases among others for the NLRB as a field attorney.
Eight years later, Kang joined Ekman & Bohrer and represented labor unions on employee benefit trust funds and general legal issues.
In 1996, he continued to represent labor unions as well as employee benefit trust funds at Schwerin Campbell Barnard until his retirement in 2003.
In 1988, he began his community service by joining the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), an organization that later participated in an Immigrant Workers’ Freedom Ride to Washington D.C. that he helped organize in 2003.
He said, “It (APALA) is made up of Asian American union activists, and so, since I was practicing labor law, it was just natural that I joined.”
In addition to being an APALA member, he has also been a volunteer attorney since 1994 for the Korean American Bar Association of Washington’s pro-bono legal clinic for Korean immigrant families.
“I’ve always thought pro-bono was important. It’s just always something that I thought we should do,” Kang said.
Appointed by then Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, he also served as a commissioner in the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission from 2001 to 2009. (end)
James Tabafunda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.