A Month Rich in Civil Rights History

February 23, 2018 • JACL, Politics


By David Inoue, JACL Executive Director

David Inouye

The month of February is a hectic month for the Japanese American community. We are all busy with the many activities for Day of Remembrance, this year being the 76th since the signing of Executive Order 9066. There is a tremendous richness in the variety of activities happening around the country that will expand the reach of our story to others outside our own Japanese American community.

February also happens to be Black History Month. We may not always be fully aware as a community how intertwined our struggles as minority communities might be, but it is important to recognize the alliances we can and must share with other communities of color.

While we are, justifiably so, excited by the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, this is also a major anniversary for the broader civil rights movement. Fifty years ago, the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike brought Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, Tenn., the site of his assassination later in the year.

The sanitation workers strike is vitally important to the history of civil rights in the United States and ties together so many different issues we are faced with today. Fundamentally, the “I Am a Man” declaration that was the rallying cry for the Memphis workers carries on today with the Black Lives Matter movement. It is undeniable that today still, black lives are undervalued by our society.

Labor remains fundamental to erasing disparity of opportunity in this country. So many Japanese Americans have utilized education to enter professions that afford the opportunity to earn higher wages, though those wages are often lower than what a white person might make for the same work.

Differences are further exacerbated by gender disparity, as women tend to earn less and are less considered for advancement to management and executive roles. We join other minority communities in fighting the injustices of unequal wages.

This image was used for posters during the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike.

The Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike underscores the important role labor unions can play in helping to level the playing field. JACL joined in an amicus brief this year in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). This case could do significant damage to the viability of union membership and, as a result, damage the ability for unions to advocate on behalf of workers. It is undeniable that employees represented by unions tend to have better wages and benefits than those left to negotiate their salaries and benefits independently.

As in the case of the Memphis workers, organized labor has often served as a galvanizing force in the civil rights movement. Even today, it is organized labor that is leading the fight for immigrant rights in the fight for DREAMers. We are proud to be working with our labor allies in the fight for immigrants’ rights.

There is one more important intersection between Japanese American redress and the wider civil rights movement. One of the key provisions of redress was that it was to be payable only to those still surviving who had been in the American concentration camps. This was widely known to be included as an exclusion, so as to not set a precedent for slavery reparations, as there are clearly no currently living former slaves.

I would argue that the time has come to revisit this “precedent” and recognize it for the concession it was to have redress pass. Just as our country was brought to provide an apology to our community, we need to be a voice for true racial reparations for our African-American brothers and sisters.

We can start by finally embracing the 50-year old demand for recognition in the statement of “I Am a Man!” Make one fundamental concession: Our society continues to devalue the lives of African-Americans in employment practices, educational opportunity, housing availability and so many other sectors of life. Without this basic acknowledgement, we cannot even begin to make an apology for the enduring legacy of slavery and racial discrimination in this country.

David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.

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