On Tuesday evening of this week, a young white man shot and murdered 8 people in three different spas around Atlanta, Georgia; 6 of the victims were Asian-American women. Over the summer last year, many Asian-American rights groups joined Black lives groups to call for justice in George Floyd’s murder. In the wake of Tuesday evening’s seemingly targeted murder spree (the shooter has denied a racial motivation), many groups that have organized around Black lives have since likewise made statements in solidarity with Asian-Americans against racist violence. This kind of interracial solidarity is not new, and in recognition of the little-known Asian-American contributions to civil right and other social justice movements, this Women’s History Month let us spread the stories of three Asian-American women who dedicated their lives to fighting injustice.
Grace Lee Boggs
Grace Lee Boggs was a philosopher, civil rights leader, and leftist revolutionary who contributed immensely to both the theoretical and practical aspects of social change. Born to Chinese immigrants in 1915 in Providence, Rhode Island, Boggs eventually moved to Chicago and became involved in the tenants’ rights movement and the workers’ movement. Through that work, she became involved in the historic 1941 March on Washington, which was primarily organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin and which was a major influence on Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington. In Chicago, Grace met African-American activist-organizer and auto worker James Boggs. In 1953, Grace and James married and moved to Detroit, where they continued their work on northern Black civil rights by helping to organize coalitions of communities to protect workers and women, to decrease street violence, and to resist the economic and police assaults on Black Detroiters. In 1992, Grace and James founded Detroit Summer, a summer program for volunteer youth from across the country to help revitalize neighborhoods in the city.
A staunch leftist revolutionary, Grace Lee Boggs constantly challenged her own thinking, always growing in her understanding of injustice and the ways to resist it. Early on, she was heavily influenced by the German philosophers Kant and Hegel, and later by the Black revolutionary and her contemporary, Malcolm X. Later, Boggs became convinced of Dr. King’s revolutionary nonviolence and his insistence on the cultivation of the “beloved community” as a necessary and practical part of a successful political revolution. Having immersed herself in the Black civil rights movement for most of her life, Grace became a role model and a symbol of interracial solidarity for a new generation of Asian-Americans inspired by Black civil rights and disturbed by US aggression in Southeast Asia in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Deeply influenced by the growing Black Panther Party and the Asian liberation movements, in 1970, she and James along with other Asian-American activists in Detroit founded the Detroit Asian Political Alliance. Later that year, in a speech Grace gave to the Alliance, she said: “We are the first generation of Asian-Americans who are resisting assimilation… We have this choice today only because… the American Establishment… began opening up all sorts of doors to Chinese and Japanese. Now… we are repelled by the United States way of life. The Vietnam war has given us a glimpse into its biocidal and genocidal character. The Black revolt has given us an idea of the dehumanizing principles by which it operates.” But, it was not until after the death of her husband James in 1993 that Grace Lee Boggs deeply examined her Asian-American identity. In the last couple decades of her life, Boggs continued writing, working for her community, and evolving in her thinking. Her autobiography Living for Change was published in 1998, and her last book The Next American REvolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century was published in 2011. Grace Lee Boggs passed away on October 5, 2015 at the age of 100.
Marion Kwan was a dedicated Chinese-American member of the Black civil rights movement. In 1965, after attending a lecture at Hastings College about racial discrimination and violence against Blacks in the South, Kwan moved to Mississippi to work with the Delta Ministry. Through that group, Kwan became acquainted with many of the major civil rights groups of the time, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Kwan immediately recognized the physical segregation of African-Americans from whites in the South as similar to the zoning laws that kept Chinese people contained within “Chinatown” in San Francisco, but also knew that the situation was significantly more dire for African-Americans. In her own words: “It was there, all right; systemic racism may be evident, but so was the strength of the community that would not give up on itself. Chinatown, too, was like that to me. Both minority ghettos within cities, hanging on as hard as it could. But that’s where the comparison stops. I was able to go beyond the boundaries of San Francisco Chinatown without being in imminent physical danger -- hateful stares and verbal insults notwithstanding -- but in Hattiesburg, I knew that going beyond borders one could end up being dead. I had learned about how Chinatowns were burned down to the ground and about Chinese lynching of the past, but I did not know that was still happening -- before my eyes, right then and there in the Deep South, to another race of people.”
On her first day working for the Delta Ministry, Marion Kwan was tasked with attending the trial of a fellow civil rights activist from the North who had been arrested for walking alone by the highway. Southern jails were widely known to be dangerous for any civil rights workers, and so a strong presence from the movement was necessary during the trial proceedings. Before the trial could commence, however, Kwan and the 9 other civil rights workers there had to be divided into the “white” and “colored” sections. After forcing the Black activists to the “colored” section, the Deputy Sheriff apparently did not know where to place Marion. After a minute of whispering between the Judge and the Deputy Sheriff, the latter shocked the court by dismissing the case altogether. As Kwan said about the incident: “For that moment anyway, the conscience of the Nation sat in limbo and helped free my fellow-freedom fighter. That is the irony of racism. It’s not about color, it’s about human dignity and equal rights.” For the next few years, Kwan continued working in the movement: registering Black citizens as voters, organizing grassroots groups, and reaching out to others in the community. She eventually moved back to her home city of San Francisco, bringing with her the lessons she learned in Mississippi about community resilience, self-determination, civil rights and oppression. Back in San Francisco, Kwan continued to work in grassroots community organizations as well as national and international social justice. She worked as a Head Start Pre-K teacher in Chinatown, served as the YWCA Young Adult Program Director for a time, did social work for the International Rescue Committee in Hong Kong, and protested the US involvement in the war in Vietnam. Kwan is still alive today, continues to give interviews and work for social justice, and finds great inspiration in the new movement for Black lives.
Patsy Mink was the first woman of color and first Asian-American woman elected to Congress, representing the State of Hawai’i for 24 years from 1965 to 1977, then from 1990 to 2002. As a third-generation Japanese-American woman in ethnically diverse Hawai’i, Mink experienced One of the early examples of Patsy Mink’s commitment to justice occurred during her first year at the University of Nebraska when she organized her fellow students and successfully fought against segregated dorms. On her first day in Congress, Mink proposed and successfully passed a resolution protesting British nuclear testing in the South Pacific. She would go on to write the first draft of Title IX, the law that protects against discrimination based on gender in public schools and any other federally-funded education program; Mink would also co-write the final draft of the law. As the conflict in Vietnam increased in intensity and spread into Cambodia and Laos, Mink consistently criticized the United States’ critical role in escalating and accelerating the violence.
In the second half of her career in Congress, Mink opposed the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas, co-leading a protest march to the Capitol to force the Senate Judiciary Committee to hear Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual assault against Thomas. Mink worked tirelessly to restore, maintain, and progress civil rights and socio-economic protections that had been neglected or diminished since the last time she was in Congress in the ‘60s and ‘70s. She opposed Republican-sponsored welfare reform laws, which would have gutted the protections and programs she had dedicated herself to defending. She was a co-sponsor of the original DREAM Act, which would provide basic civil rights protections for undocumented minors in the United States. From the moment it was proposed to the day of her death, Mink vehemently opposed the formation of the US Department of Homeland Security, presciently warning against the kinds of human rights abuses the US government perpetrated on Japanese-American ethnic minorities during the Second World War. Patsy Mink passed away on August 30, 2002 at the age of 74, just one week after winning in the 2002 primary; later that year, Congress officially renamed Title IX to the “Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act” in honor of her significant contributions to the landmark legislation.
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McFadden, Robert D. “Grace Lee Boggs, Human Rights Advocate for 7 Decades, Dies at 100.” The New York Times, 5 October 2015 (accessed 17 March 2021). https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/06/us/grace-lee-boggs-detroit-activist-dies-at-100.html
“Oral History/Interview: Marion Kwan March 2016.” Civil Rights Movement Archives, 2016 (accessed 17 March 2021). https://www.crmvet.org/nars/kwan16.htm
“Patsy Mink.” National Park Service (accessed 17 March 2021). https://www.nps.gov/people/patsy-mink.htm
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