Asian American history has never been the focus of teaching curriculums in American schools. As a community, we’re often treated as perpetual foreigners despite having a rich history within the United States dating back to centuries ago.
Although school lessons briefly gloss over the poor treatment of Chinese railroad workers in the 1800s and the Japanese concentration camps, a few sentences in the footnote of a history book will never be enough to accurately describe the atrocities Asians faced in America nor give the appropriate recognition to the civil rights heroes within our own communities who fought against these injustices.
For those curious about the extent of Asian American activism and the discrimination our community fought against, here are 10 facts about the history of Asian American Civil Rights you probably didn’t learn in school.
1. Chinese railroad workers strike of 1867
History of Asians exercising their rights to protest date back to the earliest group of immigrants, proving that the meek and docile stereotype surrounding Asians have never been based on factual evidence.
During a labor shortage in the 1860s, Central Pacific director Charles Crocker experimented with hiring Chinese laborers who had previously worked on the California Central Railroad. Due to anti-Chinese sentiment and many believing the Chinese were not strong enough for the job, the idea faced some backlash. However, construction superintendent James Strobridge began by hiring 50 Chinese workers in 1865 as a test, hiring additional groups of 50 when the experiment was deemed successful. After running out of Chinese laborers to hire, the group arranged to bring workers directly from China by boat.
While White workers brought in $40 per month, Chinese workers received around $31 while working under dangerous conditions, longer work hours — often facing physical violence — and having to pay for their own lodging, food, and tools, unlike their White counterparts.
Starting on June 25, roughly 3,000 Chinese laborers protested for eight days, demanding equal wages, shorter work hours, and better work conditions, making this the largest labor strike of the era. The strikes came to an end when Crocker cut off all food and supplies, literally starving the workers and forcing them to return. However, the Chinese laborers were provided with slightly higher wages that were agreed upon before the strikes began.
2. Teddy Roosevelt and anti-Asian sentiment
With a name like Teddy Roosevelt, it’s no wonder the 26th president of the United States is remembered in the history books with a relatively positive image. Roosevelt is known for his conservation work, expanding the national parks and forests, and winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906. Some may even remember him for Robin William’s beloved portrayal in “Night at the Museum.”
What the world has heard little of, however, is his blatant anti-Asian sentiment. Roosevelt was also an avid supporter of Asian exclusion, once stating that “To permit the Japanese to come in large numbers into this country would be to cause a race problem and invite and insure a race contest.”
Roosevelt who was known to be pro-eugenics, also believed Whites possessed superior morals and intelligence and therefore carried the burden of essentially civilizing those lesser than them.
Historians now recognize Roosevelt’s racist behaviors, and although his words and actions were a reflection of his time, acknowledge that this is far from a valid excuse.
By now, most members of the Asian American community know of the atrocities regarding the Japanese Concentration Camps which were put into effect by an Executive Order from Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942. However, as a result of the U.S. downplaying the actions of the government from these times — such as referring to these camps as “Internment Camps” — there are many shameful details that have been left out of our history books.
When the FBI began raiding homes of Japanese immigrants, not even World War I veterans who had fought for the U.S. could avoid being round up. The assets of anyone connected to Japan were frozen, precious family heirlooms were confiscated, and anyone holding on to family keepsakes was arrested.
When the internees arrived at the camps, the conditions they faced could be compared to the treatment of European prisoners of war. Japanese Americans were forced to sleep in animal stables and stalls reeking of manure, often with no roofs over their heads, with poor health care, food, and cleanliness. Additionally, the internees were given no privacy, being forced to shower and use the toilets in communal areas.
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Any internees found attempting to escape or resisting orders could also be punished by death. For example, when Ichiro Shimoda, a mentally ill man in his mid-forties, tried to escape, he was instantly shot and killed. Similarly, Hirota Isomura and Toshiro Kobata were shot after being accused of attempting to escape, which was later proven to be false.
However, few Japanese Americans were able to avoid these camps by moving to the islands of Hawaii. There, local Hawaiians demanded protection for the Japanese as many of these immigrants worked on their pineapple and sugar plantations.
4. Asian American Student Protests
Today many of us take cultural and ethnic studies courses for granted. However, in the 1960s, Asian American students on university campuses across the state of California were fighting for exactly this. As the younger generation, they began to see themselves as more American than their parents’ generation and began to establish a pan-Asian group identity, even reaching out to other minority ethnic groups in solidarity.
The longest student strike in U.S. history took place in San Francisco from November 1968 to March 1969. This was also the first student protest in which Asian American students played a major role. During these San Francisco State strikes, students from various minority ethnic backgrounds at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley fought for the development of ethnic studies programs as well as the right to design these programs themselves.
Today, SFSU offers over 175 different courses as a part of its College of Ethnic Studies.
5. Coining of the term “Asian American” and phasing out “Oriental”
Historian and Civil Rights activist Yuji Ichioka is credited with coining the term “Asian American” in the 1960s. Ichioka began his work as an activist as a student at Berkeley and went on to teach the very first Asian American studies class at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1969. Eventually, he became the associate director of the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA when it was first established in July 1969.
Through founding the Asian American Political Alliance group, Ichioka helped to popularize the term “Asian American” as a uniting term for Asians from all backgrounds, while phasing out the racist “Oriental” tropes that had been placed onto them by Whites. As Richard Aoki once stated, “Oriental was a rug that everyone steps on, so we ain’t no Orientals. We were Asian American.”
6. Peter Yew beating in 1975
On April 26, 1975, the New York Police beat a 15-year-old whom they stopped for a minor traffic violation. When a crowd gathered at the scene outside of the Fifth Precinct, Peter Yew, a young architectural engineer, stepped in to ask the police to stop what they were doing. As a result, the violence was turned onto Yew who was savagely beaten, dragged inside of the precinct, stripped, then repeatedly beaten again before being arrested.
On May 19, nearly all businesses and factories located in Chinatown closed for the day with signs that read “Closed to Protest Police Brutality.” That day between 15,000 and 20,000 Asian Americans took to the streets to protest against police brutality, demanding that the charges against Yew be dropped and calling for an end to discrimination against the local Chinese community. After several weeks of protesting, all charges made against Yew — including resisting arrest and assault on a police officer — were dropped.
In June of 1982, over 20,000 Chinese American garment workers, a group made of mostly women, joined forces to stage a strike in New York’s Chinatown which eventually led to every Chinese garment industry employer in New York City signing a union contract within just hours.
These women were forced to work 10-hour workdays often for less than the $3.55 minimum wage. Instead, they were often being paid based on the number of their output which amounted to far less. On the day of the strikes, thousands of women made picket signs and hats for their cause, which demanded a renewal of their union contracts as well as better wages and working conditions.
Within hours, the Chinese women were victorious in securing benefits and wage increases for thousands of female workers in the city.
Vincent Chin was tragically bludgeoned to death just a week before his wedding in 1982. Michael Nitz, who had recently been fired from his job was with his stepfather Ronald Ebens when an altercation broke out with Chin. Ebens reportedly said to Chin, “It’s because of you motherf—–s that we’re out of work,” while referring to him as a “Jap.”
After being kicked out of the bar due to the altercation, Ebens grabbed a baseball bat and proceeded to hunt down Chin. When Ebens and Nitz found him, they pinned him down and broke his shins before cracking open his skull. The two men were sentenced with three years of probation and a fine, yet served no time in prison as the judge declared, “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail.”
While Chin never received the justice he deserved, this tragic murder awakened the Asian American community and united them together for a common cause. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and Indian American groups came together in a pan-ethnic coalition for the first time to fight for justice for Chin by forming the coalition Justice for Vincent Chin.
Richard Aoki was just 4 years old when his family was forced into the Topaz Japanese Concentration Camps in Utah, where he and his family were forced to live without indoor plumbing or heating. Upon being released from these camps, his family relocated to Oakland, California, where he grew up in a diverse community. During these early years, he witnessed the police brutality the African American community faced and realized the horrible treatment people of color were universally subject to in America.
After high school, Aoki decided to join the U.S. military, serving in the army for eight years until the escalation of the Vietnam War. He decided to end his career in the military after he could not support the killing and violence against Vietnamese civilians.
Eventually, Aoki met Bobby Seale and Huey Newton who asked him to join the newly formed Black Panther Party as a Field Marshall and utilized his military experience to help defend the community. Later on, Aoki also played a key role in developing the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) which supported the Black Panthers and opposed the Vietnam War.
Yuri Kochiyama was also a former World War II internee who later on dedicated her life to fighting tirelessly for equality and social justice.
When she was younger, Kochiyama watched her father who had just gotten out of surgery get arrested and detained in the hospital for being Japanese. There, a sheet reading “Prisoner of War” was hung and her father died shortly after. Not long after this traumatic experience, Kochiyama and her family were relocated from California to a concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas for two years.
Her involvement as an activist began in the 60s in Harlem, where she founded Asian Americans for Action, participated in protests against the Vietnam War, fought for human rights, and became involved in groups such as the Young Lords and the Harlem Community for Self Defense. She also met Malcolm X in 1963 whom she developed a strong friendship with. Kochiyama was by his side at the time of his assassination in 1965 and continued to dedicate the rest of her life to various civil rights causes.
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