Among the least talked about — and certainly least celebrated — heroes in American history is the first Asian American and Sikh American elected to the United States Congress, Dalip Singh Saund. Congressman Saund earned master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1920s, and was among the leaders in the national struggle to overturn the racist legislation that denied immigrants from South Asia the right to become naturalized citizens. Due to the racist societal prohibitions on his occupational choice at the time, Dr. Saund was forced to take a job as the foreman of a cotton picking gang after completing his Ph.D.
Becoming a citizen in 1949, three years after the passage of the Luce-Cellar Bill, which He was elected to Congress in 1956 from a district with almost no Asian Americans.gave immigrants from India the right to naturalize, Saund jumped into American politics and began a truly exceptional career. As a result of a vigorous grassroots effort, he was elected a judge in 1952, despite the racial taint that hung over the campaign. Remarkably for his time, or any other in American history for that matter, he was elected to Congress in 1956 from a district with almost no Asian Americans — in an era where racial segregation was often the law of the land.
Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month is an opportunity to reflect on Asian American contributions to this country, and it is also purposed to ensure that we inspire future generations to build on the accomplishments of those like Dalip Singh Saund. In that vein, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) launched SikhLEAD to inspire, train, and support a diverse, motivated and entrepreneurial group of young Sikh Americans as they prepare for a lifetime of community engagement and leadership.
The program features the SikhLEAD Internship Program, in which SALDEF partners with congressional offices, federal agencies, and DC-based host organizations to provide Sikh American college, graduate, and law students with enriching internships. Through this program, students are afforded first-hand perspective into the functioning of the federal government and legislative process. This year marks the fourth anniversary of the program, and as a result of the initiative, young Sikh Americans have been empowered to blaze new paths — like Gurpreet Singh, who was the first Sikh American to audition for America Idol and compete in the show’s semi-finals or Harmeet Kaur, who successfully went on to work in the Hill.
While the freshman class of the current 113th Congress was heralded as being particularly diverse, on the first day of the new session, out of 439 members of the House, which included 433 voting members and six non-voting delegates, 300 members, 68 percent, of the House were neither African-American, American Indian, Asian, Hispanic, nor female — a statistic that is not reflective of this country’s composition. Initiatives like SikhLEAD, Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP), and America Needs You begin the process of cultivating a heritage of service and civic participation in this country, and the ability to rise above the socioeconomic and cultural hurdles that prevent minorities and females from envisioning a run for political office or pursuing nontraditional career paths.
Our hope for this Asian American History Month is that Dalip Singh Saund’s legacy and the legacy of those like him inspires any Americans that are underrepresented in the political sphere to become leaders in their communities and on the national stage.
—————————————– Inder Singh, “Congressman Saund Model of Political Participation,” India Journal, September 24, 1999, p. A5.  Ibid.  Sara Johnson, “Diversity in the 113th Congress Looks Pathetic When You Plot It On a Map,” The Atlantic City Lab, January 11, 2013.
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Jasjit is the Executive Director of SALDEF and has been with the organization since 2009. He has provided numerous presentations on racial profiling, employment discrimination and community challenges to various audiences including the US Assistant Attorney General, FBI Director, TSA Administrator and EEOC Chairman. He currently serves on DHS Secretary’s Faith-Based Initiative and has published op-eds and appeared in/on several media outlets including New York Times, Politico, Washington Post, Huffington Post, National Public Radio, and CBS Radio. He also serves on the Executive Committee of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA).