Selma’s 50th anniv. march inspires JACL resolution to study African American reparations


Edmund Pettus Bridge-courtesy of National JACL.HIGH_RES.FORMAT
The 50th anniversary march on Selma, Ala. last year included participation by the JACL and other organizations. photo courtesy National JACL

“Frederick Douglass said we should have 40 acres and a mule.” Instead, America left blacks “penniless and illiterate after 244 years of slavery,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He calculated economic losses at $20 a week for 4 million slaves adding up to $800 billion in 1968. “They owe us a lot of money.”

As we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday, few Americans remember his staunch support for African American reparations as part of his march for equality, social justice, and peace. Many don’t comprehend the tragic loss of wealth, freedom, and human dignity, compounded by 100 years of segregation and 50 years of continuing discrimination.

The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and the Japanese American community are starting to recognize this. Prompted by the bold leadership of the JACL’s National Youth / Student Council (NY/SC), JACL delegates passed a unanimous resolution last July supporting HR 40, a federal bill to study African American reparations authored by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI).

Introduced each year since 1989, HR 40 would set up a federal commission to study the impact of slavery and its aftermath, plus recommend possible remedies. Conyers patterned his bill after the one by the late Sen. Dan Inouye (D-Hawai‘i) setting up a 1980 commission to study the concentration camp imprisonment of 120,000 World War II Japanese Americans.

Last year, members of the JACL National Youth/Student Council joined in the 50th anniversary march re-enacting the historic 1965 voting rights march in Selma, Ala. They were inspired. “We felt that supporting HR 40 could be a start. We could build up relationships between us and the African American community,” said Michelle Huey, Northern California – Western Nevada – Pacific (NCWNP) District youth representative.

Christine Umeda, a former World War II detainee and chairperson of the Northern California Time of Remembrance (NCTOR) in Sacramento knows that people “experienced racism in many forms.” “It was an eye opener for me when I learned about what drove slavery and its conditions. Human rights were denied to African Americans.”

Today’s African Americans, after generations of discrimination, “continue to need empowerment” to “lead the community out of the economic strife, lack of housing, employment, training,” said Sacramento NAACP President Stephen T. Webb.

“Lending a helping hand up, not just a hand out” is needed. Webb points out, “Jobs, housing, wages, and prison reform is the redress.”

Japanese American community leaders like Umeda also share a sense of social responsibility. “We alone didn’t win redress. We have to help others as we were helped,” said Umeda. ”It’s going to be a tough fight for reparations for African Americans,” she admitted. But “that JACL resolution was the perfect thing for our organization to do.”

This African American reparations issue has already led the Florin JACL chapter in Sacramento to reach out on reparations support and to rekindle its friendship with the Sacramento NAACP on civil rights issues. The two had previous partnered in the 1980s on Japanese American Redress and in the 1990s on firebombing attacks both communities had suffered.

“I believe that right now is one of the most important times to build a connection between the Japanese American community and the Black community,” said Huey. “There are many parallels.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the veteran of countless marches for social justice, knew that each march begins with a single, small but important step. The African American reparations study resolution might be one of those beginnings.

Andy Noguchi is co-president of the Florin JACL and NCWNP JACL District Civil Rights co-chair. He may be contacted at Michelle Huey, NCWNP Youth Rep, made major contributions to this article. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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