Reflections on MLK: An Asian American Perspective

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By KAREN K. NARASAKI, President/Executive Director, Asian American Justice Center

During the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, I had a chance to reflect on his legacy and that of two other less well-known Asian American men who shared his commitment to justice, peace and human dignity. Both men passed away a few weeks ago.

The first is Gordon Hirabayashi, who as a senior in college in Seattle challenged the infamous World War II executive order that imposed a special curfew and internment of Japanese Americans. The second is Franklin Fung Chow, who was an early civil, human rights and social justice advocate in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

I had the opportunity to know both men, serving as part of the legal team for Hirabayashi and having the good fortune to have Franklin as an early mentor.

As a Quaker and a pacifist, Gordon Hirabayashi‘s actions preceded Dr. King. When he heard about the executive order that was issued after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the curfew that applied only to Japanese Americans, he was certain it could not be constitutional and rushed to challenge it. When he couldn’t get arrested for violating the curfew, he finally turned himself into the police.

At his trial he said, “If I’m dangerous, investigate me on that; charge me on that, but don’t charge me for having Japanese parents. That is not a crime. Yet that is the reason I was subject to both the curfew and the internment orders.”

His case, together with that of Fred Korematsu and Min Yasui, finally went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where to his great dismay, his conviction was upheld. In the 1980s, papers were discovered in the government archives that exposed the fact that the government attorneys had deliberately lied to the Supreme Court about all Japanese Americans being a national security risk.

Hirabayashi joined Korematusu and Yasui in a series of coram nobis appeals and won full vindication at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. It was clear that both the curfew and the internment were based on race and not military necessity.

Like Dr. King, Hirabayashi believed it was his duty as an American to peacefully challenge an unjust law. In his lifetime he not only won vindication but also helped pass the Civil Liberties Act, which provided redress and an apology to other Japanese Americans who were affected by the executive order.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the decision in that appeal and Seattle University Law School is marking the occasion with a symposium in February.

Franklin Chow is an example of an American who more quietly followed his conscience. He had served in the Air Force and was attending San Francisco State University when the civil rights movement caught his attention. He worked for anti-poverty programs in the 1960s and was active with Cameron House, a youth services program in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

He took a bus to be part of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, where he heard Dr. King’s famous “Dream” speech. He reported that it was a spiritual experience — one that profoundly shaped the direction of his life. He moved to Washington, D.C. and eventually became an investigator for the recently established Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and then for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Chow was among other Asian Americans at the March that day. The Japanese American Citizens League had organized a delegation of both men and women. And there were Chinese Americans who went with faith-based delegations to participate in the march to Selma and who joined efforts to register African Americans to vote in Mississippi. Still, Chow was a pioneer.

At a time when there were very few Asian Americans working in the federal government, Chow was proud of his public service. In retirement, his business card said “retired federal employee.” He also helped to found and lead the Asian Pacific American Federal Employees Council and the Asian Americans in the Arts and Media.

He served as a mentor and guide to many Asian Americans who subsequently followed his path to the nation’s capital. His life is testament to the breadth of Dr. King’s impact and the extent to which one person can make a difference in building Dr. King’s vision of a “beloved community.”

I believe that Dr. King’s holiday is a time to celebrate how far America has come on the road of racial reconciliation because of his leadership and the courage and work of so many whose names are not always in our history books.

It is also a time to consider how much more work needs to be done to ensure that the dream of peace and freedom and the respect for the human dignity of every individual is fulfilled.

Finally, it is time out of our busy lives to ask ourselves, “What am I willing to do to ensure human rights in America and around the world?”

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1 Comment

  1. Trisha Murakawa on

    Thank you, Karen, for a wonderful piece and a wonderful tribute to these heroes. This is an article for me to save for continued teaching for my children. Thank you again.

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