Wing Luke was elected to the Seattle City Council in 1962, and became the first Chinese American from a large mainland city to hold such an office. Just three years later, in 1965, his promising political career was extinguished when he died in a plane crash.
Wing Chong Luke was born in a small town near Guangzhou, China, on February 25, 1925. His father had immigrated to the United States earlier in the century, but returned to China to get married. The Luke family came back to Seattle in 1931 when Wing Luke was six years old. For many years, they ran a laundry in the University District.
Luke showed leadership abilities at an early age. He was student body president at Roosevelt High School and upon graduation was one of a handful of students nationwide invited to a White House conference on juvenile delinquency.
He never made it to that conference, however, because of the exigencies of World War II. It was 1944 and Luke joined the Army, serving in the Philippines. He was awarded a bronze medal and six combat stars.
After the war, he continued his education at the University of Washington, where he earned undergraduate and law degrees. He served as an Assistant Attorney General from 1957 to 1962. In 1962, he decided to make a run for political office -- an open Seattle City Council seat.
Luke launched a remarkable campaign, assembling an impressive cadre of 1,000 volunteers, mostly young people. Despite a smear campaign that accused him of having communist ties, he won the election by 30,000 votes.
As a City Councilmember, he fought for urban renewal, historical preservation, and most notably, civil rights. In the early 1960s, the civil rights movement was just beginning to gain popular currency and Luke encountered considerable resistance before prevailing in the passage of an open-housing ordinance that prevented discrimination in the selling or renting of Seattle real estate.
Luke was active in the Democratic Party and in community affairs, especially the Urban League, the Chinese Community Service Organization, and the Jackson Street Community Council. Bright, articulate, and well liked, he was frequently mentioned as a future candidate for mayor or congressman.
Wing Luke and two others died on May 16, 1965, while returning home from a fishing trip in north central Washington. He was 40 years old. The small plane he was in crashed in the Cascade Mountains. It was three and a half years before the wreckage was found and recovered.
In 1966, the Wing Luke Asian Museum was established in Seattle's International District in honor of the late councilmember. Several years later, an elementary school was named after him. Today, the museum is thriving, a vital repository of Asian American history and culture -- and a fitting legacy to the life and work of its namesake.