This season we celebrate holidays from many different religions. The rich diversity of these beliefs adds valuable perspectives to our conversations and to our government. In honor of this diversity of cultures and religions, we honor the first Indian-American and first Sikh member of Congress, Dalip Singh Saund, as our December Changemaker.
Saung was born in 1899 in the Punjab province of India, and immigrated to the United States to attend graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. There he studied farming (and mathematics) and stayed in the U.S. to become a farmer in southern California. He wrote in his autobiography “My guideposts were two of the most beloved men in history, Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi” Like these idols, Saung advocated for equality and independence in speeches and in his writings. He was very active and involved in politics, campaigning for candidates and attending political meetings, but in 1923 the Supreme Court had ruled that ruled that immigrants from India were not eligible for U.S. citizenship, and so despite his passion for politics, Saund couldn’t even vote. He decided to change that.
Saund helped found the India Association of America and was elected its first president in 1942. Along with this new organization to gather the power of Indian Americans, Saund began his tireless work to secure the rights for Indian Americans and allow them to become citizens. He and other Indian Americans were able to convince Republican Clare Booth Luce and Democrat Emmanuel Celler to introduce a bill in Congress allowing citizenship to Indian Americans. But it was an uphill battle to get the bill passed. When a friend discouraged him from the battle, saying it was almost impossible that the United States would pass such a law, Saund responded “I have faith in the American sense of justice and fair play.”
Finally, after fighting racism (the original Supreme Court ruling was based on the idea that although Indians were considered “Caucasian,” they were not “white persons” and were therefore ineligible for citizenship) and discrimination for 4 years, Harry Truman signed the Luce-Celler Act into law in 1946.
Saund then became a naturalized citizen in 1949 and ran for judge in Imperial County California. During the campaign, someone asked him in the middle of a restaurant “Doc, tell us, if you’re elected, will you furnish the turbans or will we have to buy them ourselves in order to come into your court?” “My friend,” Saund responded, “you know me as a tolerant man. I don’t care what a man has on the top of his head. All I’m interested in is what he’s got inside.” On Election Day 1950, Saund won by 13 votes. In 1957, he then became the first Asian-American, first Indian-American, and first Sikh (or any non-Abrahamaic faith) to serve in Congress. Often just called “The Judge,” Saund staunchly supported the 1957 Civil Rights bill and other civil rights legislation, continuing his legacy of advocating for equal rights.
You can read Saund’s own words in the pamphlet “What America Means to Me” https://www.saada.org/item/20140723-3646
And find out more about Congressman Saund with these resources: