By DONNA URSCHEL
In a moving and inspiring keynote address, Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Bill Lann Lee credited his parents for instilling in him the need for hope, hard work and the necessity of civil rights laws in building a better life for all Americans.
Mr. Lee spoke May 12 for the Library's Asian Pacific American Heritage Month celebration during May. President Carter's 1979 proclamation of an Asian Pacific American Heritage Week resulted in President Bush's 1992 signing of Public Law 102-450. President Clinton's Proclamation states that the law designates each May as a time "to honor the accomplishments of Asian and Pacific Americans and to recognize their many contributions to our nation."
"I think back to what I learned from my parents: When anyone's civil rights are denied, all of us are diminished," he told a capacity crowd in the Mumford Room.
"It's not just a concern for Asian Americans. It's a concern for each and every one of us. The importance of enforcing civil rights laws is that it protects you, me, all of us. That's the greatness of this country."
Mr. Lee began his speech, "Pursuing Progress: Achievements and Challenges," by reflecting on the struggles of many Asian Americans, including his parents, during the past two centuries.
"My parents were Chinese immigrants. They came to the United States in the 1930s. They were not greeted with open arms. My parents did not find grand opportunity. They encountered racial prejudice. My father could not find a job in a company. He had to open a small laundry in New York City.
"But they were not people who complained of their situation. They had a steadfast devotion to an ideal -- an ideal that was the American dream. This is a country of hopes and potentials.
"My parents' attitude is something I learned a lot from: When adversity comes, look at the positive aspects. The positive aspect for my parents was that they were happy to be in this country. If they couldn't share in the American dream, their children could share," Mr. Lee recalled.
He said his parents instilled in him the values of hard work, education and the pursuit of a fair chance.
"The civil rights laws embody the promise of equal opportunity and fairness that my parents believed in," he said, explaining his attraction to the field.
"That's all the civil rights laws stand for and that's all the civil rights division in the U.S. Department of Justice stands for: To give people a fair chance unimpeded by prejudice or exclusion."
Mr. Lee saluted the Chinese immigrants of the 19th century in the West. "Those who were subjected to unequal treatment in San Francisco and throughout the West -- they really blazed the trail that I follow. They, along with African Americans, were the first people to utilize the 14th Amendment and go to court for their rights. They did not give up, but used the American legal system. They went to court and they won. They started to lose their rights again in the early 20th century, when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which overrode their early victories," Mr. Lee explained.
He also cited the influence of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Before his appointment to the high court, Marshall started and led the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), argued many cases and helped inspire much of the civil rights progress in the 20th century.
"As a civil rights lawyer, my path was set by the example of Thurgood Marshall," said Mr. Lee, who graduated magna cum laude in 1971 from Yale University, and earned a degree from Columbia University Law School in 1974.
The acting assistant attorney general described his years in the early 1970s as a volunteer lawyer for the Asia-American Legal Defense Fund in New York City.
"That experience opened my eyes," he said. "Waiters, cooks, dim-sum girls, laundry workers came to the weekly clinic. They came with humble problems of humble people. Getting legal relief for these people meant something in their lives.
"I learned from that experience, in the most forceful and direct way, that our nation's civil rights laws really do protect all Americans. It's not about theory. It's about real people's lives and about real equal opportunity and real fairness."
"My parents particularly got a charge out of those workers who were just like them," he reminisced.
"Had I not done that early in my career, I'm not sure I would have stayed a civil rights lawyer. But having done that, I understood the importance of the work."
Before his December 1997 appointment at the Justice Department, Mr. Lee served as western regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He began his legal career there in New York as an associate counsel in 1974. In 1983, he joined the Center for Law in the Public Interest, a noted public-interest law firm in California, and served for five years as supervising attorney for civil rights litigation. In 1988, he rejoined the Legal Defense Fund.
Nearly two months ago, Mr. Lee said, he was reminded once again of the importance of civil rights advocacy and law enforcement. He visited the remains of a World War II Japanese-American interment camp in Utah called Topaz, where nearly 100,000 people were imprisoned.
He found it hopeful, however, that the camp and its museum in the nearby town of Delta were being preserved by the town's residents, none of whom is of Japanese-American descent. Here is a community, he said, that realizes the importance of others' civil rights and sharing that lesson.
"We need to invest in each other's civil rights. It's more important today than ever. The civil rights laws are not for any individual or group. They are for all Americans," Mr. Lee said.
"It's like John Donne, the poet, said: 'Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.'"
Ms. Urschel is a Washington free-lance writer.