By Joyce Yin
New Organizing Project blogger
This upcoming weekend, many people will gather at Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the memorial that was recently erected in his honor. With the increased media coverage about MLK recently, it got me thinking about who are some other relatively well-known activists and organizers. We always hear about MLK but so rarely do we hear about other activists, especially those who identify as AAPI. I have some thoughts as to why that might be but today I want to shine a spotlight on AAPI organizers and activists who also deserve to be recognized for the phenomenal work they’ve done for their respective movements.
For me, a few that immediately come to mind are:
- Philip Vera Cruz —
“[Cruz] was a Filipino American labor leader, farmworker, and leader in the Asian American civil rights movement. He was a co-founder of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, which later merged with the National Farm Workers Association to become the United Farm Workers. As the union’s long-time vice president, he worked to improve the working conditions for migrant workers.
Philip Vera Cruz, a former UFW Vice President, described the start of the great Delano grape strike. “On September 8, 1965, at the Filipino Hall at 1457 Glenwood St. in Delano, the Filipino members of AWOC held a mass meeting to discuss and decide whether to strike or to accept the reduced wages proposed by the growers. The decision was ‘to strike” and it became one of the most significant and famous decisions ever made in the entire history of the farmworkers struggles in California. It was like an incendiary bomb, exploding out the strike message to the workers in the vineyards, telling them to have sit-ins in the labor camps, and set up picket lines at every grower’s ranch… It was this strike that eventually made the UFW, the farmworkers movement, and Cesar Chavez famous worldwide.”
- Yuri Kochiyama —
“For over sixty years, Yuri Kochiyama has championed civil rights, protested racial inequality and fought for causes of social justice. Her story begins during World War II. On the day of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Yuri’s father was arrested. Her parents were then forcibly removed from their home by the U.S. government and held in an internment camp along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans. While at a camp in Arkansas, Yuri came face-to-face with the segregation of the Jim Crow south. She immediately saw the parallels between the oppression of Black people and the treatment of Japanese Americans. In 1960, Yuri and her husband Bill Kochiyama moved into a housing project in Harlem. Yuri became involved in the Civil Rights Movement and was part of the major struggles of the 1960s and 70’s. She especially supported the Black liberation struggle and the work of the Black Panther party. In 1977, she took part in the takeover of the Statue of Liberty to bring attention to the struggle for Puerto Rican independence. In the 1980s, she and her husband led the successful fight to gain reparations for people of Japanese descent who were imprisoned during World War II.”
(via Democracy Now!)
- Grace Lee Boggs —
“For Lee, it began in Chicago, where she joined the movement for tenants’ rights, and then the Workers Party, a splinter group of the Socialist Workers Party. In these associations, as well as in her involvement with the 1941 March on Washington, Lee found her niche as an activist in the African-American community, focusing specifically on marginalized groups such as women and people of color. In 1953, Lee married black auto worker and activist James Boggs and moved to Detroit, where she remains an activist today, writing columns for the Michigan Citizen. James died in 1993.
Grace Lee Boggs embraces a philosophy of constant questioning – not just of who we are as individuals, but of how we relate to those in our community and country, to those in other countries, and to the local and global environment. Boggs has rejected the idea of the stereotypical radical as one who only views capitalist society as something to be done away with, believing more that “you cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.” It is in smaller groups, working together, that positive social change can happen, rather than in larger revolutions where one group of power simply changes position with another.”
- Helen Zia —
“Helen Zia has been breaking barriers for most of her life. She was among the first women to graduate from Princeton University in 1973 and has long spoken out against racism within the American feminist movement; she came out as a lesbian on national television (she married her longtime partner in 2004 and again in 2008). Zia, however, is most notable for her role in organizing against the racially motivated murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American beaten to death in 1982 by a pair of autoworkers who mistook him for Japanese. At the time, auto industry layoffs — supposedly caused by rising Japanese imports — fueled anti-Japanese sentiment in Detroit, and Chin become a national symbol of anti-Asian hate crimes. Zia, who was then working as a labor organizer, managed to unite a wide spectrum of Asian Americans into a cohesive movement. She later found her calling in journalism, becoming the executive editor of the feminist quarterly Ms. magazine and penning a number of hard-hitting pieces for The New York Times, Essence and The Washington Post. She also wrote two groundbreaking books about the Asian American experience: Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People and My Country Versus Me.”
(via Hyphen Magazine)
- Tam Tran —
“When I met Tam at the American Studies Association conference, she was so centered, compassionate, and warm. Over dinner, Tam had mentioned her advocacy for undocumented students through her filmmaking—she later sent me her film “Lost and Found.” Yet she’d relayed her passions so humbly. Tam never announced that she was, actually, a nationally celebrated advocate for the rights of undocumented immigrant students, an effort she began in earnest as a student at UCLA. She never openly recalled her 2007 testimonies to the House Judiciary Committee as a pioneer in the student movement for the DREAM Act, which, if passed, would give undocumented students who graduated from a U.S. high school a path to citizenship through university education or military service.
I mourn her family’s loss, as they part with their brave, brilliant, beautiful, and loving Tam. Her brother Lolly writes, “We are happy to see that she touched so many lives.””
(via dia CRITICS)
- Richard Aoki —
“Aoki, a third-generation Japanese American, was born in San Leandro, CA in 1938; at the age of 4 he and his family were evacuated and relocated in the forced movement of 110,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast during WWII. After returning from the Topaz, Utah relocation center in 1945, his family returned to the Bay Area, where he would eventually encounter fellow Oakland residents Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, co-founders of the revolutionary nationalist Black Panther Party for Self-Defense..
He also enrolled at UC Berkeley in the late 1960’s, was a co-architect in the campus’ Asian American Political Alliance (one of the first organizations to proclaim themselves “Asian American”), and an organizer in the Third World Liberation Front, the coalition of color whose campus protests in 1969 led to the formation of one of the nation’s first Ethnic Studies programs.
Aoki—like fellow Japanese American Panthers Guy Kurose and Mike Tagawa in the Seattle chapter—is part of a hidden history of Asian American activism that, while perhaps no longer so well-figured in a racial consciousness that has been radically altered by the changing face of Asian America since the 1960’s, is nevertheless crucial in an understanding of what previous generations have contributed to our lives.”
- K.W. Lee —
“Born in 1928 in Kaesong, North Korea, K.W.’s activism started during the student democratization movement as a student at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea. In 1950, he immigrated to the United States on a student visa and studied journalism at West Virginia University, later receiving a master’s degree from the University of Illinois in 1955. He then became the first Asian immigrant hired by a mainstream daily newspaper when he reported for the Kingsport Times and News in Tennessee and the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. As an investigative reporter, K.W. covered a variety of human interest stories that focused on social justice, such as black lung disease among coal miners in the Appalachian Mountains and the civil rights movement in Jim Crow South.
Now in semi-retirement, K.W. continues to be active as a spokesperson for the Korean American community. In universities such as U.C.L.A. and U.C. Davis, he has lectured on investigative journalism in communities of color, inspiring a new generation of Asian American journalists seeking social justice and fair representation for their communities.”
The above are, of course, only a handful of the many AAPI activists that are out there. There are countless other AAPI activists and organizers out there in our own lives who are doing amazing things every single day and deserve to be recognized. That being said, who do you think should be added to this list? Let us know!