Bay Area Day of Remembrance calls for reparations for African Americans

Reparations for African Americans took center stage at the annual Bay Area Day of Remembrance program held online by the Bay Area Day of Remembrance Consortium under the theme: “Abolition! Reparations! Carrying the Light for Justice” Feb. 19.

Documentary filmmaker Dianne Fukami and her daughter Hillary Nakano, co-chair of Japantown for Justice, emceed the event, which featured video messages from activists from across the country. Commemorating the Feb. 19, 1942 signing of Executive Order 9066 by Franklin D. Roosevelt, which enabled the U.S. government to incarcerate some 120,000 people of Japanese descent in wartime concentration camps, the 42nd annual program noted that Japanese American activists have joined the call for reparations for African Americans after the Black Lives Matter movement surged last year.

The event also recognized the Japanese Latin American redress campaign and included a performance by Ito Yosakoi.

Rev. Arnold Townsend. courtesy of Rev. Arnold Townsend

Rev. Arnold Townsend, vice president of the San Francisco National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and associate minister at Church Without Walls, gave the keynote. He said he was well-aware of what the Day of Remembrance means to Japanese Americans, having grown up alongside them in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The African American minister said during a Feb. 17 press conference prior to the program, that he learned about the wartime incarceration experience early in life through friends who were born in “strange places.”

“My mother, being a woman who was politically astute, started to explain to me why they were born there (in various concentration camps) and the racism that was involved in people being moved there,” he said. “Because one of the things African Americans understood immediately, for the most part, what was happening to Japanese people … wasn’t about World War II, it was about racism.”

‘What It Means To Be An American’
During his keynote speech, Townsend said the annual Day of Remembrance events help define what it means to be an American.

“To be an American is not the same for everyone as it is if you’re born and raised as a white person in this country,” he said. “What it means to be an American if you are of color is to fight against the odds. It means that you’re going to have to become successful beyond oppression, beyond racism, beyond discrimination, if you’re going to have any kind of life in this country.”

He stressed that the United States is not “better than” the Jan. 6 attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol or the ongoing imprisonment of children in cages.

“No, we are not better than this. This is who we are. … We’ve been taking children from their parents for 400 years. We’ve been uprooting people and incarcerating them for 400 years. We are not better than this. We need to become better than this. But that’s a dream for the future,” he said.

Decades of Solidarity
Jeffery Matsuoka, chair of the Day of Remembrance program, also reflected on the role African Americans played in the Japanese American fight for redress in the 1980s.

“Our Redress Movement could not have succeeded without the example of the Black Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and ‘70s,” he said. “When our JA community sought out allies, for our Redress Movement, we received unquestioning support from prominent African American legislators, like Ron Dellums and many Black individuals and organizations, because they too understood all too well the harmful effects of racial prejudice. Now, in the age of Black Lives Matter, our committee felt it important to reaffirm our solidarity with the African American community and their struggle for reparations.”

Matsuoka highlighted several legislative efforts supporting potential reparations for African Americans. Top of mind for several speakers at the event was HR 40, a bill that would create a federal commission to study the issue of reparations for African Americans, similar to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.

William “Bill” Sato. Bay Area Day of Remembrance organizing committee

Those who fought for Japanese American redress also expressed their support for African American reparations. William “Bill” Sato, a founding member of the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations, said Japanese Americans owed the Redress Movement to the Black Civil Rights Movement.

“At that time we were going through the McCarthy era and you couldn’t criticize the government because you’d be labeled a communist,” Sato said during the Feb. 17 press conference. “And so, it was the Civil Rights Movement that gave us the impetus to challenge the government and speak up. … That sentiment was always there, but our community never felt that safe to speak out against those issues until the Civil Rights Movement really gave us that power and that strength.”

Sato, who was born in the Poston concentration camp in Arizona, told the Nichi Bei Weekly reparations for African Americans will likely be a long process.

“It’s gonna take a lot of discussion. I think that commission idea is good because it’ll bring out a lot of things that we don’t know about, having to do with the African American experience and the pain and suffering they endured, but also the hope and glory and resilience of that community as well,” he said.

The program also included an annual update on the Japanese Latin American redress effort from Campaign for Justice: Redress NOW for Japanese Latin Americans!

The program also presented this year’s Dr. Clifford I. Uyeda Peace and Humanitarian Award to the organization. The group continues to call for reparations and an apology for some 2,200 people of Japanese descent abducted by the U.S. government from 13 Latin American countries during the war to be used as hostages for prisoner of war exchanges.

Bekki Shibayama. courtesy of Bay Area Day of Remembrance organizing committee

According to Bekki Shibayama, the Campaign for Justice celebrated a major milestone last year after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ruled in favor of her father, Art Shibayama, and called on the United States to apologize and pay reparations to Japanese Latin Americans. The decision, however, comes after the elder Shibayama passed away in 2018. His daughter called the victory “bittersweet,” as she expressed her continued frustration with the U.S. government’s lack of acknowledgment for the plight of Japanese, German, Italian and Jewish Latin Americans during the war.

“Until there is proper redress and justice, these crimes against humanity are ongoing,” she said. “The Shibayama family stands in solidarity with all groups and communities currently fighting racial oppression. Our hope is that the published ruling can help lead to no more government orchestrated kidnappings, indefinite detention, family separation, forced deportations and no more children in today’s detention camps.”

While candle lighters could not physically gather this year to commemorate those incarcerated in the camps, the program played a video featuring two people lighting the candles on behalf of this year’s 11 featured candle lighters.

The candle lighters represent “organizations and individuals actively working to protect civil liberties and immigrant rights, the abolition of inequity and racism, as well as the fight for reparations for our Black brothers and sisters,” according to Fukami.

The candle lighters were: Libia Yamamoto, for the Department of Justice concentration camps; Tomio Hayase-Izu for Granada (Amache), Colo.; James King for Gila River, Ariz.; Amy Iwasaki Mass for Heart Mountain, Wyo.; Saliem Shehadeh for Jerome, Ark.; Kim Miyoshi for Manzanar, Calif.; Ellen Bepp for Minidoka, Idaho; William “Bill” Sato for Poston, Ariz.; San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton for Rohwer, Ark.; Ruth Ichinaga for Topaz (Central Utah); and Brandon Quan for Tule Lake, Calif.

The 2021 Day of Remembrance put reparations front-and-center for the Japanese American community, with Townsend calling them vital to correcting the United States’ racism.

“This country has never stepped up to say ‘we were wrong. And we’re willing to pay for the wrong.’ … We’ve got to do it. No one can do it for us,” he said.

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