The news regarding the Washington, D.C. monument to Martin Luther King caused me to reflect on the times when the civil rights battles were being fought.
In 1948, I was 14, and our family had moved from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where we lived during the war years, having relocated there from Amache. When we returned to L.A., we moved into a home in the Seinan area, on 37th Place, a half-block east of Normandie.
After settling in we discovered there was a restrictive covenant on the deed to the home that forbade the selling of the home to any minority. Shortly thereafter, an older white man started going from door to door in the neighborhood with a petition forcing us to move out. The image of that man with his clipboard remains with me today as a bitter memory.
As it developed, we did not have to move out. Years later, I found out the reason we did not have to move was due to a decision by the Supreme Court citing the restrictive covenant as unconstitutional. The main force behind this decision was Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, former NAACP attorney.
Fast-forward 11 years: I had spent two years in the Army, gotten married, finished college, and accepted a teaching job at an all-white high school in the west San Fernando Valley. Except for one or two Latinos, I was the only minority person on the faculty. We moved into a home in an all-white neighborhood in Van Nuys, where a friendly woman across the street checked out the neighbors and assured us they had no objection to Marion and me moving in.
Years later I found out that our friends Jack and Rose Yamashiro were not allowed to move into an all-white area in Sunland Tujunga in the Valley.
Just about then the civil rights movement was starting to make the headlines. I was busy starting my career, and took little notice.
What got my attention was the hateful racism directed toward the “Negros” in the South. A quasi-military group who called themselves the Black Panthers and people like black Muslim Malcolm X spouted angry rhetoric that, I am sure, frightened a lot of white people.
Then after peaceful demonstrations, such as those integrating lunch counters, there emerges this Baptist minister whose spellbinding speeches include proposals that sound reasonable and conciliatory. It was no surprise, especially after the “I Have a Dream” speech at the Washington Monument in 1963, that Martin Luther King was raised up as the great civil rights leader he turned out to be.
Japanese Americans have not sat out the civil rights movement. JACL participated in the 1963 March on Washington. In 1964, JACL initiated action that resulted in repeal of laws preventing racial intermarriage, and also participated in changes in law affecting fair housing. In 1965, JACL aided in making the changes to our immigration law that allowed for much greater immigration of families from Asia.
And it should be noted that due to enabling legislation, disabled persons have been able to have their needs accommodated in private and public facilities.
It is not likely that redress for our incarceration would have been possible without the civil rights movement bringing public awareness of the harm resulting from civil rights violations. JACL took the lead in the successful passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, granting us $20,000 and an apology from the president. NCRR and other organizations also played significant roles.
The feminist movement occurred within the same time frame, allowing women greater opportunities and a measure of equality that had been denied them. Liberated and empowered JA women played crucial roles in our 10-year struggle for redress.
During the Vietnam War, Dr. King questioned why we were there, and pointed out how a disproportionate number of men of color, because they were not able to get deferments, were called upon to fight and die.
Shortly before he was assassinated, Dr. King marched in Memphis in support of trash collectors. In today’s world I am certain he would be reaching out with compassion to the LGBTQ community, calling for understanding, acceptance and equality.
The Martin Luther King Monument is an inspiration to me. To be sure, he had his flaws, but he was a Christian who truly walked the talk. For all of America, and particularly for people of color, the revolution he led forever changed the course of history.
Phil Shigekuni can be reached by email. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.