What exactly was the Asian-American Civil Rights Movement? In the 1960s and ’70s, Asian Americans mobilized for a slew of political causes, including the development of ethnic studies programs in universities, the end of the Vietnam War and reparations for Japanese Americans placed in internment camps during World War II.
Yellow Power’s Birth
How was yellow power, or the Asian-American Civil Rights Movement, born? In watching African Americans expose institutional racism and government hypocrisy, Asian Americans began to identify the ways in which they, too, had faced discrimination in the U.S.
“The ‘black power’ movement caused many Asian Americans to question themselves,” wrote Amy Uyematsu in “The Emergence of Yellow Power,” a 1969 editorial. “‘Yellow power' is just now at the stage of an articulated mood rather than a program—disillusionment and alienation from white America and independence, race pride and self-respect.”
Black activism played a fundamental part in the launch of the Asian-American Civil Rights Movement, but Asians and Asian Americans played a key role in radical black circles as well. African American radicals often cited the writings of China’s communist leader Mao Tse-tung. Also, a founding member of the Black Panther Party—Richard Aoki—was Japanese American. A military veteran who spent his early years in an internment camp, Aoki donated weapons to the Black Panthers and trained them in their use.
Like Aoki, a number of Asian-American civil rights activists were Japanese American internees or the children of internees. The decision of President Franklin Roosevelt to place more than 110,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II had a detrimental impact on the community. Interned based on fears that they still maintained ties to the Japanese empire, Japanese Americans strove to prove that they were authentically American by assimilating. Yet, they continued to face discrimination. Speaking out about it, however, felt risky considering their past treatment.
“Unlike other groups, Japanese Americans were expected to be quiet and behave and thus did not have sanctioned outlets to express the anger and indignation that accompanied their racially subordinated status,” writes Laura Pulido in Black, Brown, Yellow and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles.
When not only blacks but Latinos and Asian Americans from various ethnic groups began to share their experiences of oppression, indignation replaced fear about the ramifications of speaking out. Asian Americans on college campuses demanded a curriculum representative of their histories. Activists also sought to prevent gentrification from destroying Asian American neighborhoods.
“The more we examined our collective histories, the more we began to find a rich and complex past. And we became outraged at the depths of the economic, racial and gender exploitation that had forced our families into roles as subservient cooks, servants or coolies, garment workers and prostitutes, and which also improperly labeled us as the ‘model minority’ comprised of ‘successful’ businessmen, merchants or professionals,” explained activist Gordon Lee in a 2003 Hyphen magazine piece called “The Forgotten Revolution.”
Bay Area Students Strike for Ethnic Studies
College campuses provided fertile ground for the movement. Asian Americans at University of California, Los Angeles launched groups such as Asian American Political Alliance and Orientals Concerned. A group of Japanese American UCLA students also formed the leftist publication Gidra in 1969. Meanwhile, on the East Coast, branches of AAPA formed at Yale and Columbia, and Midwestern Asian student groups formed at the University of Illinois, Oberlin College and University of Michigan.
“By 1970, there were more than 70 campus and…community groups with ‘Asian American’ in their name," Lee recalled. “The term symbolized the new social and political attitudes that were sweeping through communities of color in the United States. It was also a clear break with the name ‘Oriental.’”
Off college campuses, organizations such as I Wor Kuen and Asian Americans for Action formed on the East Coast.
One of the movement’s greatest triumphs was when Asian American students and other students of color participated in strikes in 1968 and '69 at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley for the development of ethnic studies programs. Students demanded to design the programs and select the faculty who would teach the courses.
Today, San Francisco State offers more than 175 courses in its College of Ethnic Studies. And, at Berkeley, Professor Ronald Takaki helped develop the nation’s first Ph.D. program in Comparative Ethnic Studies.
Vietnam and the Formation of a Pan-Asian Identity
A challenge of the Asian-American Civil Rights Movement from the outset was that Asian Americans identified by ethnic group rather than as a racial group. The Vietnam War changed that. During the war, Asian Americans—be they Vietnamese or not—faced hostility.
“The injustices and racism exposed by the Vietnam War also helped cement a bond between different Asian groups living in America,” Lee said. “In the eyes of the United States military, it didn’t matter if you were Vietnamese or Chinese, Cambodian or Laotian, you were a ‘gook,’ and therefore, sub-human.”
The Movement Ends
After the Vietnam War, many radical Asian American groups dissolved. There was no unifying cause to rally around. For Japanese Americans, though, the experience of being interned had left festering wounds. Activists organized to have the federal government apologize for its actions during World War II.
In 1976, President Ford signed Proclamation 4417 in which internment was declared a “national mistake.” A dozen years later, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of1988, which distributed $20,000 in reparations for internees and contained an apology from the federal government.