THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Mervyn M. Dymally, former Congressional Black Caucus chair, a vital redress advocate

During the early 1970s, the movement for Japanese American redress (as it would later be called) was born. It started as a collection of grassroots activists seeking to raise popular consciousness about the wartime removal of Japanese Americans. One notable leader was Sue Kunitomi Embrey, who founded the annual Manzanar Pilgrimages. Another central figure was Edison Uno, who worked to persuade the Japanese American Citizens League to endorse official reparations for the wartime incarceration. In many ways, the campaign for redress was rather a fringe movement — many former inmates opposed it, and even those who agreed with the principle of restitution were skeptical that it could ever be realized.

Yet the fledgling movement did attract powerful support from an important outside constituency — African American politicians. During these early years, the black political class, especially California-based officials with sizable groups of Nisei constituents, signed on as endorsers of reparations. Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles offered low-key support for protests.

Rep. Augustus Hawkins, who had been a California state assemblyman during World War II and had denounced the original wartime removal, lent his full backing to the principle of redress. U.S. Rep. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke was another early convert.

Perhaps the most vital black supporter of redress was Rep. Mervyn Malcolm Dymally. Dymally, born in Cedros, Trinidad in 1926, claimed both African and East Indian ancestry. He moved to the United States at the close of World War II to attend university, first as a journalism student at the all-black Lincoln University in Missouri, then at Los Angeles State College (now CSLA). He subsequently received a Ph.D. from United States International University (now known as Alliant International University). He worked for several years as a teacher of handicapped children in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Dymally’s political career started in 1962, when he was elected to the California state Assembly. Four years later, he was elected to the state Senate — the first-ever African American in that body. In 1974 he made history by becoming lieutenant governor of California, one of the first two African Americans in such a position since Reconstruction. After serving a term as lieutenant governor, he was elected to Congress in 1980 from California’s 31st District, which included the heavily Japanese American city of Gardena.

Once installed in Congress, Dymally soon became a leading advocate of redress. According to Miya Iwataki, a redress activist with the NCRR, he was first introduced to the issue when he attended a town hall in Gardena organized by city mayor Mas Fukai.

Iwataki asked him what his position on redress was. When Dymally admitted that he was not familiar with the issue, Fukai informed him that it was the most vital question of interest to the Japanese American community. Dymally quickly asked to meet with activists from the National Coalition for Redress/ Reparations (NCRR) to inform himself.

In December 1982, following the hearings of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (at which Fukai and other Gardena residents had testified) Dymally introduced a pair of redress bills drafted by the NCRR. The first, which had provisions similar to a failed bill previously introduced by Washington state Rep. Mike Lowry, provided individual reparations, while the second was designed to provide community-wide benefits to restore “social, economic, and cultural well-being” to Japanese communities. Dymally obtained Congressional Black Caucus approval for the bills. He meanwhile offered NCRR members facilities in his Congressional office for lobbying and other organizational work, hosted receptions for them, and hired Japanese American staffers. In August 1984, Dymally was the lead congressional witness at a U.S. Senate hearing on redress chaired by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. The following year, Dymally went on a well-publicized tour of Manzanar during the annual pilgrimage. He stated, “To me, Manzanar is symbolic of the whole concentration camp experience of the Japanese American people during World War II…This is a place where history was made.” In addition to seeking support for redress, he added, “I am also going to Manzanar because I would like to bring this experience and this issue to the greater consciousness of the American people.”

In 1987, in tribute to his prestige in Congress, Dymally was elected chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. However, Dymally’s activism on redress was by no means universally popular among African Americans. According to Nisei Rep. Robert Matsui, most members of the CBC, despite their endorsement of the Dymally bills, were slow to warm to the issue of redress on the grounds that African Americans should have priority on reparations. Indeed, by the late 1980s JET magazine reported that Dymally himself faced increasing challenges from black officials, who believed that blacks ought to be compensated first for their ancestors’ suffering under slavery. “Dymally’s response to critics is that talk without action is all he’s heard from black leaders approaching him about similar legislation for blacks.”

Dymally was also forced to contend with anger in the black community over the discriminatory statements and actions of officials and businesses in Japan. These rebounded against Japanese Americans who — like during World War II — were unfairly connected with Japan. In 1986, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone asserted in a speech that Japanese educational success was due to Japan’s status as a monoracial society, while “blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans” held down education levels in the United States. The comments raised a storm of protest. Nakasone ultimately apologized for his words, and met with various African American leaders.

Still, the damage was done, and the sentiment of mistrust was gravely aggravated in July 1988 when Michio Watanabe, a former finance and trade minister (and future deputy prime minster), publicly charged that, unlike Japanese, blacks were nonchalant about declaring bankruptcy. As chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Dymally organized a press conference with his colleagues in which they deplored the Japanese attitude and challenged the Japanese government to act forcefully to curb racial bias against blacks, under threat of boycotts of Japanese goods. Dymally was careful to make clear that he did not include Japanese Americans in his strictures against Japan. Rather, he insisted that the CBC members spoke for other members of Congress and people of good will across America, including Japanese Americans. Two Nisei members of Congress, Reps. Robert Matsui and Norman Mineta, joined the CBC in publicly denouncing Tokyo’s actions, even as NCRR members and other Japanese Americans in Los Angeles sponsored a protest at the local Japanese consulate.

In August 1988, Congress approved the Civil Liberties Act, which provided an official apology and a $20,000 redress payment to each person of Japanese ancestry who had been affected by Executive Order 9066. Four years later, Dymally left Congress. In 2002, following a decade-long absence from political life, he ran successfully for the California state Assembly, and served three terms before retiring definitively from public life.

Mervyn M. Dymally’s stalwart support for Japanese American redress makes him, in Miya Iwataki’s words, the “unsung hero” of the campaign. He certainly backed redress at a time when it was not “safe” to do so, and brought the movement a new level of visibility and legitimacy. Yet, his activism is largely unknown among Japanese Americans, and he does not figure in the list of outside champions of the community. Worse, the story of his leadership has scarcely percolated within the larger community, or among African Americans. I have thus made an exception in my usual rule of not writing about living persons — as Dymally is very much alive — in hopes of helping rectify this injustice.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is an associate professor of history at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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