This story is part of a series about the Asian Americans who traveled to Selma, Alabama for the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the Selma-to-Montgomery march and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Click here to view the rest of the series.
By David Monkawa
Labor organizer, Monterey Park
Marching across the historic bridge where Bloody Sunday took place 50 years ago, I realized how this event was part of a chain reaction that resulted in massive rebellions in Los Angeles during the summer of 1965 and in many other cities for few years after.
I benefited directly from the L.A. “Watts Rebellion” just five months after Bloody Sunday because a sympathetic advertising executive created a program for inner-city kids in South Central L.A. called the Tudor Art program. I was lucky enough to be once taught by the prominent Charles White, known as the “Father of the Black Arts Movement.” I didn’t know at the time that similar to Selma, Alabama, police brutality, housing discrimination and unemployment were really high among black folks in South Central L.A.
Later in that same year, some black students formed a Black Student Union at my high school, insisting that they no longer be called “negroes” but “black.” “We are calling ourselves what we want, not what the white powers telling us what we are.”
We were known as “Orientals” at the time. I began to read Malcolm X and realized that Japanese Americans being oppressed by the U.S. government had many similarities with black folks. Soon afterwards, I believed we should be called “Asian,” not “Oriental.”
Later that year after the riots, we were evicted from our house on 29th Street, but out of shame, I could never reveal this except with black guys at school, who didn’t care as much. It just made me more angry against the system that I saw was taking advantage of all of us and still continues to do so.
Both in my own personal identity and in my life skills, I benefited, as did millions of other Asians, Chicanos, women and LGBTs, from the dynamic struggles of African Americans. I wasn’t very aware of the benefits I got all the time. But over the years, I used whatever things I learned from Charles White and many others to do artwork aimed to change things for the better and not just pretty pictures for the 1 percent.