An Important Legacy: “Oriental Americans Against Proposition 14” – The Fight Against Racial Covenants
By Susie Ling. Posted February 10, 2023
“In 1962, my wife and I were renting, but we wanted a home for our children. I am a Korean War veteran and at that time, it was possible for a veteran to buy a tract home with no deposit. There were numerous tracts being sold in towns such as Monterey Park. However, some developments would not sell to minorities – including Asians. There were racial covenants,” said Albert C. Lum. Albert was born in Arkansas, working for I.R.S. in the day, and attending law classes at USC at night. As a newly minted attorney in 1963, he would coordinate the efforts of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino Americans against restrictive covenants in California’s real estate. “Orientals Americans Against Proposition 14” would be an important pan-Asian American political collaboration – before the 1960-70s Asian American Movement.
Albert was not alone in his frustration to assert his right to home ownership. He learned from his own mother. Bertha Lum, born in Mississippi, had to manipulate the system to buy a lot in West Memphis, Arkansas where the Lums eventually built a grocery store. She was a 1930s fighter who made sure her six kids went to the “White-only” local school until each graduated.
Dr. Sammy Lee was a major in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and a two-time Olympian gold medalist. In 1955, Garden Grove would not sell him property as he was of Korean descent.
Delbert and Dolores Wong came to Los Angeles with their family in 1951. They inquired about Park La Brea in the Miracle Mile District, a 176-acre development owned by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. They were told “no vacancies”, only to see advertisement for vacancies. In 1953, they found a vacant lot in Silver Lake but the realtor said that there was a policy to keep the neighborhood White-only. Delbert frog leaped over the realtor and negotiated with the owner directly. The Wongs purchased the property with two other families and partitioned the lot into three parcels. That’s how the first Jewish American and two Chinese American families desegregated Silver Lake. Delbert was a veteran of World War II and in 1948, the first Chinese American to graduate from Stanford Law School. In 1959, Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown appointed Wong to be the first Chinese American on the bench in the continental United States. Delbert and Dolores Wong – and Delbert’s father, Earl – signed on to “Oriental Americans Against Proposition 14.”
Eugene Lowe, a 4th generation American said in an earlier interview, “In 1939, [my parents moved us] to a modest house on El Sereno Street in Pasadena. A neighbor came to our door and said to my mother, ‘You can’t live here, Pocahontas. They’ll tell you at City Hall.’” Pasadena’s racial covenant came after the 1885 race riot against its Chinese population. The “Lowes of Pasadena” were signed on to the “Oriental Americans Against Proposition 14.”
1963 Rumford Act and 1964 Proposition 14
Racial covenants are clauses inserted into property deeds intended to prevent people of color from moving into certain communities. Housing segregation ensured segregation of schools, occupations, and other community affairs. In 1963, the California Legislature passed the Rumford Act (AB 1240) to end such discrimination in “public housing and in all residential properties with more than five units.” Assemblymember William Byron Rumford, a pharmacist, was one of the first African Americans to serve in the California Legislature.
The California Real Estate Association (CREA) – the predecessor of the California Association of Realtors (CAR) – immediately campaigned for a ballot initiative to nullify the Rumford Act. They easily got their petitions signed. This “Realtors Initiative” would prohibit government to place limitations on a person’s right to refuse to sell or rent their residential property. This backlash was an open attack against the civil rights movement. It had the support of the John Birch Society, the Chandler’s Los Angeles Times, and the United Republicans of California. It also had the support of Ronald Reagan who said on his gubernatorial campaign trail, “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, he has the right to do so.”
Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown said that Proposition 14 would be “a provision for discrimination of which not even Mississippi or Alabama can boast.” He encouraged Jews, African Americans, and Asians to vote and rally against Proposition 14. Reagan would win a landslide election against incumbent Brown in 1966.
In 1964, Proposition 14 passed with 65% of the votes – including 70% of Los Angeles voters. However, Prop 14 would be overturned by the California Supreme Court in 1966 and the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 Reitman v. Mulkey. Prop 14 would be cited as one the root triggers of the 1965 Watts Riots.
A Pan-Asian American Political Action
In 1964, Albert Lum coordinated the “Oriental Americans Against Proposition 14” in Los Angeles. Their Sponsor List included 200 names of attorneys, actors, scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs, and community leaders. The list includes the local chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. It includes the names of Representative Edward Roybal and Manuel Real, to be the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for Central California. There was a parallel group of Asian Americans against Proposition 14 in Northern California.
Albert Lum said, “Minorities were flexing their muscles by trying to buy homes in all areas… [Like others], I had the same intense feeling of how unfair [Prop 14] would be if it passed… I had become friendly with community activists who introduced me to other Asian activists. Together, we decided to do something about it… We were beginning to grow in numbers and in economic and educational stature. We sent a letter to Governor Pat Brown who supported our efforts. He agreed to appear as the featured speaker at a gathering of our community… More than 300 persons attended. It was, to my understanding, the first Asian event that included multiple Asian groups.”
On 14 October 1964, the group had a Benefit Dinner that attracted over 300 Asian American leaders – and Governor Brown. A speaker was Korean American Alfred H. Song, then on the California State Assembly. Another was Reverend Paul Louie, one of the 1970s founders of Chinatown Service Center, Chinatown Library, and Chinese Historical Society of Southern California.
Steve Louie kept a copy of this father’s speech for the occasion. Paul Louie said in 1964, “I understand this is the first time we Orientals have banded together in the Greater Los Angeles Area… It has been stimulating and heartening to work together, to make new friends, and to know that we can work together… We are against [Prop 14] because it would make us and others second class citizens, because it sets people against people, because it places property above persons, and because it is morally wrong.”
Born in 1949, Steve said, “My parents made me leaflet against Prop 14 when I was about 14 years old. I knew my parents couldn’t buy a house in La Canada. Neighbors even signed petitions against us! When we walked up to review a house, people would slam the door on us. I couldn’t understand these contradictions: why do people hate us? My parents said, ‘This is discrimination.’ We finally got a house because a White church member was a contractor. He built us a 3-bedroom house – at cost – in 1961.” Steve continued, “I’ve kept my dad’s files on Proposition 14 for sixty years. I knew this was important.”
In 1968, Steve joined an Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) meeting. Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee are credited for the new term “Asian American” and the founding of the Asian American Political Alliance. Steve said, “Because of this AAPA meeting, I went back to my campus at Occidental College and started a pan-Asian student organization. We started with the name, Oriental Interest Alliance. Using the term ‘Asian’ was very political then.” When Professor Ichioka taught the first Asian American studies course at UCLA in 1969, it was entitled “Orientals in America.” Steve points out, “But by 1980, the term ‘Asian American’ was used by the government census.”
In 1974, Albert Lum organized fundraisers for Jerry Brown’s successful gubernatorial race. In 1975, Albert Lum founded Southern California Chinese Lawyers’ Association, the first of many Asian American bar associations. His son and partner, Justin, is also a past president. Delbert and Dolores Wong’s four children were all active in the Asian American Movement. The Lowes of Pasadena include Al Lowe, deemed “the man who save Pasadena” for his work on the 1970s desegregation of the Pasadena Unified School District. Kris Lowe is now on the Sierra Madre City Council.
Homeownership. Some say that this is the heart and soul of the American dream. For Asian Americans, this was a step in their continuous struggle for civil rights and democratic participation.
Parenthetically, a new 2021 law, AB 1466, encouraging the removal of “any discriminatory or restrictive covenant language on historical public records.” In October of 2022, the California Association of Realtors apologized for their 1960s “regretful history of advancing discriminatory policies.”
 For more information on Albert C. Lum’s life and career, see Diane Kreiger’s “A Career of Advancing Asian American Inclusion in Law” in USC Gould School of Law’s website. Posted 17 May 2022. https://gould.usc.edu/about/news/?id=5024
 Marshall Wong. Delbert Wong: First Chinese American Judge. Gum Saan Journal Special Edition 2004, p. 20. Available at https://gumsaanjournal.com/volumes/special-edition-2004-judge-delbert-wong/
 “Eugene and Virginia Lowe, Lowe and Sons, Pasadena” in Gum Saan Journal, Volume 37, Number 1, 2015, p. 15. Available at https://gumsaanjournal.com/volumes/vol37-2015-voices-of-the-san-gabriel-valley/
 Matthew Fleischer. “Opinion: How the L.A. Times Helped Write Segregation into California’s Constitution,” Los Angeles Times. Posted 21 October 2020. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-10-21/prop-14-ronald-reagan-la-times-vote-segregation-californias-constitution
 From Steve Louie’s private collection.
Addendum: Program for No on 14 Oriental Americans Against Proposition 14 event. Note the pan-Asian alliance and the participation of progressive business people and entertainers Jack Soo, Keye Luke, and others.
Thank you for presenting this important part of Asian American history by our preeminent historian, Susie Ling.