To be honest, I never got too excited about supporting the Black Lives Matter movement since to me — all lives matter. However, since this February is Black History Month, it only seemed fitting to write an article about some of the history between the African American community and the Japanese American community.
Although my past dialogue with Issei has been limited (at best), I have had several conversations with Nisei who recalled that during the war and internment, many of their Black neighbors came to help. For example, some belongings and treasures too difficult to carry away to the internment camps were stored in a local church basement and safeguarded by their Black friends.
I also found online several other stories of incredible support for incarcerated Japanese Americans. Takashi Hoshizaki, for example, recalled the shock and joy he felt at discovering his Black neighbors, the Marshalls, had traveled all the way to the Pomona detention facility in order to bring apple pie and ice cream to his family.
Los Angeles resident Mollie Wilson had a number of Japanese American friends in pre-World War II Los Angeles. Throughout their internment, she kept in regular contact with several of them, sending morale-boosting letters, cards, pictures and gifts (Source: The World, despite history, Japanese Americans and African Americans are working together to claim their rights, Feb. 23, 2016).
Hugh McBeth, a Los Angeles-based Black attorney and the leader of California’s Race Relations Commission, was an outspoken defender of Japanese Americans during the war. A November 1943 article in the progressive Black newspaper the California Eagle called the “persecution of the Japanese American minority … one of the disgraceful aspects of the nation’s conduct of the People‘s War.”
What is fascinating to me is that the Asian American movement began on the heels of the 1960s Black Civil Rights Movement, taking inspiration from the Black Panthers, especially. “We mimicked a lot of those behaviors. We got black leather jackets, and we got berets as well,” said Ron Wakabayashi, a former national director of the Japanese American Citizens League (Source: South Seattle Emerald, Japanese American Redress and African American Reparations Intertwined, April 7, 2021).
Years later, somewhat “on the heels” of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (The Redress Bill), H.R. 40 was first introduced in Congress in 1989. H.R. 40 is a congressional bill that seeks to explore reparations for slavery and address how slavery and its legacy have deeply harmed generations of Black people in America. The bill’s number refers to “40 acres and a mule” — a false promise of property and opportunity to Black people after the end of slavery in 1865.
According to a July 23, 2021, article in laiest.com, H.R. 40, which would create a federal commission to study and develop reparation plans, was voted out of the House Judiciary Committee in April for the first time since it was introduced by the late-Rep. John Conyers in 1989. According to the article, a strong showing in the House could help convince President Joe Biden, who has signaled support for reparations, to create a commission by executive order.
Not surprisingly, “Just as Black Americans supported our community’s struggle for redress, we will strive to support and show solidarity with Black people as they fight for reparations today,” said Michael Nishimura, a 29-year-old doctoral student and organizer of a virtual town hall meeting called “Reparations Then, Reparations Now!” (Source: NBC News, “Because We Know It Is Possible”: Japanese Americans Join Fight for Reparation, Jan. 13, 2022).
In a Feb. 16, 2021, press release, here are parts of what Ann Burroughs, president and CEO of the Japanese American National Museum, had to say:
“I wanted to convey our support for H.R. 40, which will create the Commission to Study and Develop Proposals for African Americans Act. This study commission would thoroughly research the history of slavery as well as the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, the decades of Jim Crow discrimination and our current period which includes Black Lives Matter. The commission would then offer possible remedies to historic racial discrimination, which the federal government would implement.
“In supporting H.R. 40, JANM recognizes the value of commissioning a government study of the generations of racial prejudice and the failure of the country to address systemic racism. It also recognizes that the Japanese American community owes a historic debt to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which provided the example for its own fight for redress in the 1980s. Finally, in understanding the success of the Japanese American redress campaign, JANM acknowledges the essential role played by those who supported this effort because it was the right thing to do for America.
“Similarly, in dealing with over 400 years of racial prejudice, the United States must address this historic issue properly because it is the right thing to do for the country. H.R. 40 is a major step in understanding the events and ramifications of this story, as CWRIC was for the Japanese American World War II experience.
“We urge you to pass H.R. 40 out of your committee so the Commission to Study and Develop Proposals for African-Americans Act can begin the important task of documenting and sharing this American story so that this country can seek new remedies to a historic wrong.
“In conclusion, ‘communities of color’ should support one another against racial prejudice and discrimination. If you are so inclined to support H.R. 40, you can contact Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (formally known as National Coalition for Redress/Reparations) at (213) 284-0336. Their email address is https://ncrr-la.org/index.html.”