Asian Americans aren’t late to the diversity game. It’s just that most people still see race as a matter of Black and White—and tend to forget us.
But we were there, too.
These days, we’ve all come to recognize the rise of Latinos. And we acknowledge our indigenous people of color, the Native Americans.
But there are still many who talk about Asian Americans as if we are the new Whites.
Here’s a fact: Working hard, being good at math doesn’t equal White.
As we end the month-long commemoration of #Selma50, one takeaway is that Asian Americans have always been a part of the struggle of “non-Whites” in a White America.
If you don’t tend to see many Asians on the front lines at protests in historical photos, there was good reason.
Immigration quotas limited Asian Americans to fewer than 1 million.
Asian Americans made up just .5 percent of the country. It wasn’t until 1965 that immigration reform would lift the quotas and allow for a much larger flow of people from Asian countries.
That’s how important 1965 is for all of us.
And the Asian Americans who were there at Selma knew how important it was to join in with their brothers and sisters in the South.
There was the late Kyoshi Kuromiya, an anti-war activist, who later became a legendary AIDS activist for ACTUP in Philadelphia. He was born in a WWII internment camp. He knew what it felt like to have rights taken away.
Todd Endo also spent his first three years incarcerated in an internment camp. I’ve written about both Endo and Kuromiya on the blog at http://www.aaldef.org/blog He was marching at Selma then and now.
But at Selma, there was a surprise reunion of sorts among the “senior” marchers of Asian American descent. Through the loose network of Asian American activists, Endo was connected with Vincent Wu.
He’s a retired engineer from California who made a name as a team leader at Atari. Gamers interested in history will note Wu brought “Donkey Kong” to the home pc.
That would be enough for most people in one lifetime, no?
But not Wu.
In 1965, Wu was a volunteer marshal in the historic final march from Selma to Montgomery, where he walked alongside Dr. King as a member of his security team.
At 5 feet 9 and a half inches and 155 pounds, Wu said he wore a blue chambray work shirt and jeans, no uniform, and definitely not a suit. Only a blue armband made out of plastic, like that of an air mattress, distinguished him as a member of the volunteer perimeter security team. They were never more than 10 or 20 feet away from Dr. King on the march to the Alabama capital.
“We were jubilant because this was a triumphant event,” Wu told me about that last voting rights march to Montgomery. “We were finally reaching our objective, our goal. It was an honor to assist him, to protect him.”
Did King ever speak to him? Wu only laughed. “I’m just a foot soldier,” he said of his days volunteering in the historic march. Wu was a 23-year-old in grad school at Illinois in 1965. Like other Americans, he was outraged by the scenes on the TV news from “Bloody Sunday.”
“We answered the call of Dr. Martin Luther King to come down to Selma to bear witness and to stand with the people who were oppressed,” Wu said. “My motivation was for my love of American ideals. It was a moral as much as a political stand for me. I believe in the value of non-violence and respect for every human being. So it stems from a sense of morality and ethics. . .as a human being. . . I was there not as an Asian American student but predominantly as an American citizen.”
Wu was a minister’s son born in the Yunnan province, China, but his family made its way to Hong Kong. As a minister, Wu’s father beat the immigration quota and was given special passage to the United States to serve at the First Chinese Presbyterian Church in New York City.
In 1951, Wu was just 9 and attended P.S. 59.
“We lived in a mostly White neighborhood; one of only two Chinese families in the school,” he said.
When I said it sounded like “Fresh off the Boat,” he laughed. As an immigrant with an accent, he could probably relate to both American-born Eddie Huang and his parents.
From midtown Manhattan, Wu moved to San Francisco, right on the edge of Chinatown, and his education resume was typical for many Bay Area Asian Americans: Francisco Junior High, Washington High, San Jose State. But then came Illinois for grad school. And Selma for activism.
He was one of seven in a VW bus, organized by a Unitarian church in Illinois. In nine hours, he was in Selma, the start of what would be two weeks that would change his life.
He didn’t see any other Asian Americans. But he did have a sense of danger.
“We were kind of scared,” he said, reminded of the images of the Selma police and Bloody Sunday. “When we drove through, we did not dally downtown because it was a dangerous place.”
As a volunteer, Wu was put to work shuttling other activists from airports to Selma and to Montgomery.
That’s when he encountered the police. Wu was profiled—he was driving while being a civil rights activist.
“I was stopped by Montgomery police and thrown into jail,” Wu recalled. “I spent one night in the Montgomery jail due to no cause but just transporting activists…There were no charges, so I was out the next day. One night. But that was my first introduction to grits.”
Shuttle duty was one of the more dangerous jobs for volunteers, as it turned out. As part of the transit team, Wu said he drove the same car as Viola Liuzzo, the White activist from Detroit who was shot and killed—one of the Selma deaths that galvanized activists around the nation.
“You kind of freaked out,” Wu said when he recalled learning of her death. “You felt it could have been you in that car.”
But the volunteer job that was more dangerous was actually being part of the team of volunteer marshals marching with Dr. King.
“[We] were holding hands, circling around Dr. King. We walked with him from the car to the stage, like that,” Wu said of an unforgettable memory that would fuel his student activism for years.
In 1965, Wu never saw an Asian American in all that he did at Selma, though there were a few among the thousands of protestors who came for the marches.
And when he met Endo for the first time this month, it was like meeting a long-lost fellow traveler.
A Chinese American and Japanese American together at Selma with all their brothers and sisters past and present.
It was a clear sign the evolving fight and march for justice in America has always been enriched by diversity.
Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race, culture and politics for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (www.aaldef.org/blog) Like him at www.facebook.com/emilguillermo.media ; www.twitter.com/emilamok