By MIKE MURASE
(Revised and expanded from remarks made at the Day of Remembrance program Feb. 28 at Japanese American National Museum)
I want to first express my gratitude to the Day of Remembrance Committee for organizing this commemoration on the 73rd anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066. I especially want to thank members of NCRR (Nikkei Civil Rights and Redress) who have been sponsoring the annual DORs since 1979.
To focus this year’s DOR on the plight of African Americans is so much in the tradition of NCRR and of DOR. Just as they were among the first to offer support, after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, to the Muslim community who were unfairly targeted and scapegoated, again this year, after a spate of killings of unarmed young African American men, DOR focuses on “racism, hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
I am proud to have been a part of NCRR during the height of the redress movement in the 1980s, testifying at the commission hearings and chairing the evening community session. After all these years, I consider NCRR activists to be among my colleagues and closest friends.
Given the theme of today’s program, and our efforts to examine the relationship between the events in 1942 that impacted the entire Japanese American community and the recent events of police brutality and violence against African American people, particularly young black men, we should call this the Days of Remembrance.
Feb. 19, 1942 will always be remembered by the Japanese American community and its allies. But we should also remember today — Feb. 21 — as the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. When Malcolm was killed in 1965, my political consciousness had not yet been raised, I was not aware of his life and the role he played in the struggle of black people against racism.
But I remember that a handful of black students at UCLA — some of them personal friends from high school — organized a quiet vigil in his honor. They lined both sides of the sloping Bruin Walk (which connected the Student Union to the classroom buildings) as mostly white and some Asian students passed by to go to their classes. It made me curious to know about this man was — Malcolm X — that my friends were honoring.
I later read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” and was so moved and inspired that even to this day, I would say he would be among the top five people who influenced and helped to shape my life-long views. Many of his speeches remain as relevant today as they were when he was alive.
Also, I also want to share with you a story of triumph over racism and brutality that we need to remember. Ten days and 25 years ago — on Feb. 11, 1990 — we celebrated another significant date in history. After years of struggle by the South African people, the racist apartheid regime was forced to free Nelson Mandela from 27 years of imprisonment on Robben Island.
In L.A., I had been active in the Free South Africa Movement for several years, organizing demonstrations and boycotts of Shell gas stations and calling for disinvestment by any U.S. companies doing business with the South African regime. So when we learned that Mandela was about to be released, we organized a vigil at First AME Church.
Many of us were huddled around a little television set (we didn’t have flat-screens then, and I don’t remember if we had cable). We ended up staying up all night until we got the news at about 5 in the morning. When Mandela finally appeared on the screen, we saw him with his fist raised high, a big smile on his face, Winnie Mandela at his side. All of us in the international support movement were so elated, so jubilant that at daybreak, we marched out into the streets, doing the traditional South African dance called toyi-toyi. (Now, people who know me know that I don’t dance, but that morning, I was in the spirit.) It was a day of triumph, but it was achieved only after walking the long road to freedom.
Unfortunately, there are many more Days to Remember:
• Aug. 28, 1955 — 14-year-old Emmet Till was murdered in Mississippi, supposedly for “flirting with a white woman.”
• Feb. 26, 1965 — Jimmy Lee Jackson, a voting rights activist in Alabama, was shot by troopers while taking part in a peaceful march.
• April 4, 1968 — Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis.
• Dec. 4, 1969 — Fred Hampton, a 21-year-old leader of the Black Panther Party, was ambushed while asleep in his own bed by the Chicago police.
• Last year on July 17, 2014 — In a videotaped incident, Eric Garner died as a result of an illegal chokehold used by New York police officers. He is heard to repeat 11 times the words: “I can’t breathe.”
• Aug. 9, 2014 — Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was fatally shot by Ferguson policeman Darren Wilson in another videotaped incident showing him with his arms raised.
All of these events happened not just to random individuals, but they were killed because of “racism, hysteria and the failure of political leadership.” To this day, a black person is killed by law enforcement, vigilantes or security EVERY 28 HOURS. Even with clear videotaped evidence and eyewitness testimonies, rarely are the perpetrators arrested, indicted or convicted. There is something wrong.
How did you get involved? What continues to motivate you today?
I was born in Japan. My family moved to this country when I was 9 years old, and we settled in a part of L.A. that is now called South Central LA. I grew up in the Crenshaw District, a neighborhood of mostly African American, with a significant JA population.
At Foshay Junior High School — considered at the time to be one of the toughest middle schools in the L.A. Unified — we were the children of black migrants from the South who had come out to California to work in the defense industry, or the children of Nisei-led families starting to rebuild their lives after release from wartime imprisonment and Shin-Issei immigrants struggling to stake a claim in America. We all lived in the same inner-city neighborhoods when housing discrimination was still legal.
At every grade level, we were taught “U.S. history” — about what the Pilgrims did to the Indians, what Europeans did to “tame the wilderness” — we were taught about political and military leaders, inventors, scientists and such, and of course all of them were white.
Even when we got into the 20th century, there was hardly a mention of Asian Americans or other people of color. So there we were, black and JA students sitting in a classroom, being taught that this is our history.
Some years later, when I got to UCLA, it was more of the same, but by then, some of us were questioning much of what we had been taught. The campus life afforded us the opportunity to ponder questions of identity and place, both individually and collectively as Asians, Blacks, Chicanos. Who are we? Where do we belong?
I remember in about 1967 or ’68, Eldridge Cleaver came to UCLA to speak at Pauley Pavilion. We had heard about the formation of the Black Panther Party and wanted to hear more about their development. Many Asian American students were intrigued by Cleaver’s account of how they had organized to defend themselves against police abuse in Oakland’s black neighborhoods, and about their social service and children’s programs.
Even though the specifics were different in many ways, we could identify with being disrespected, marginalized, abused and stripped of our rights solely based on race or skin color. In that sense, we shared a common bond.
At the same time, Japanese Americans shared everyone’s aspirations for a better life. All of us — Asians, Latinos, Blacks, newly arriving immigrants, women, disabled, LGBTQ and others — want to have decent housing, good working conditions, educational opportunities, and a shot at having a happy, comfortable life. We want the “American dream” to be true for all of us. But for people of color, it wasn’t that simple.
In the context of America, aspiring to do better often was confused with being more like whites, because, from our perspective, whites were the ones that were doing well. So for JAs as a community, it continues to be a challenge to figure out where we fit. What is our relationship to other people of color, and our position in mainstream society?
Throughout history, Japanese Americans have faced difficult choices with regard to how we best change our collective plight. To enlist in the 442 or MIS, or to declare oneself a “no-no boy.” To return to possible hostility in California or to start a new life elsewhere. To fight in a war in Vietnam that no one could explain, or to declare oneself a conscientious objector. To move or to improve (leaving behind old neighborhoods to join the flight to distant suburbs, or staying and making the best of Little Tokyo and other ethnic enclaves).
How do each of us make choices about whether we do well or do good? What values do we want to uphold, individually and as a community? I stay involved because there are values worth fighting for: Social justice. Economic equality. Political power. For everyone.
What was your reaction to Ferguson? What’s next? What needs to be done? What can people do?
My reaction to the news of the killing was sadness. My reaction to the grand jury’s decision that Officer Darren Wilson would not face criminal charges was anger and disappointment. My reaction to the protest movement that developed across the country was empathy and a desire to support their efforts.
Throughout history, it seems that there has been a pattern and practice of unarmed young black men being shot or killed with no consequences for the perpetrators. As the organizers of DOR put it succinctly, you have to question whether there is a SYSTEM of injustice that still operates insidiously against people of color.
As I said earlier, these killings resulted from “racism, hysteria (by the police) and a failure of political leadership.” Japanese Americans have faced this ourselves. We can identify with being treated unfairly because we are of a certain race, ethnicity or national origin.
Japanese Americans and other people of color waged struggle for the expansion or our rights in this country, but our experiences are not isolated. They must be seen squarely in the context of the decades and centuries of struggle waged by African Americans in this country. All communities of color, other oppressed peoples and all of America owe a debt of gratitude to the African American community who sacrificed in the civil rights and social justice movements.
As a Sansei, I am so grateful to our elders — the Issei and Nisei — who worked tirelessly to make our lives and our community better. All of us stand taller today because we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, both within our community and in other communities of color.
I am thankful that in my life, I learned from leaders like Malcolm, Martin and Mandela. But I am also grateful that I got a chance to work with many grassroots people, just ordinary people in the black and Chicano communities and in groups like NCRR, LTPRO, Gidra and many others. And I hope to stay active for many years to come.
Finally, as a member of the “older generation,” I would say that over the years — through the Reagan years, Bush and Bush years, after 9/11, the Occupy movement, and the bold and broad activism following Trayvon, Eric Garner, and Ferguson, I’ve been inspired by the young people stepping forward, accepting leadership. Speaking out. Organizing.
As older people, I think we owe it to the young people and we owe it to our future to be supportive and encouraging as possible to the younger generation of activists. There are still changes to be made in society, to make life better for everyone.
I am happy to see that every year, the organizers of DOR have chosen themes that are current and forward-looking, and acknowledge that the significance of DOR is not just about the past, about history, but it’s a time for us to think about what is going on in society today, and think about what can we do now, to bring about a better tomorrow … a future with more justice and equality.
Mike Murase worked in the black community in Los Angeles for 30 years in community organizing, job training, and various political campaigns. He was the district director for Congresswoman Maxine Waters for 14 years. He has also been a long-time activist in Little Tokyo and other Asian American communities.