Written by Kit Lee
By the 1960’s, the rise of the Black Power movement inspired the mobilization of Asian American communities who were grappling with how they would organize and resist against systems of violence, such as racism and poverty. Of these issues, one of the most prominent and impactful was the fight against the Vietnam War – this was the starting point for generations of Asian American activists who saw that there were connections between this war to a history of anti-Asian racism in the United States and a legacy of American imperialism, or the exploitation of foreign countries for material and political gain.1 Organizing against the Vietnam War provided an opportunity for radical left contingent of the Asian American movement to solidify its goals and organizing principles, and to grow into a political force that both borrowed from and collaborated with the Black Power movement.
The flyer from the antiwar march in Washington, D.C. on April 24, 1971 is a great starting point to understand the priorities and organizing frameworks of the leftist Asian American movement, which were to resist American imperialism abroad, as well as change oppressive conditions for communities of color at home. According to Espiritu, “the Asian American contingent refused to join the main antiwar march in Washington, D.C. because the coordinating committee failed to adopt the contingent’s antiracist statement for the march…When Asian Americans did take part in the white-dominated marches, they passed out their own leaflets, which denounced racism and imperialism”.2 Asian American activists’ attempts to bring forth the salience of race in the protest against the Vietnam War were met with hostile pushback from organizers who did not see a place for race in the conversation.3 Despite negative feedback, Asian American activists on the left felt compelled to engage and to continue pushing for the antiwar movement to see how the Vietnam War was not only an act of physical violence, but an act of racist violence that impacted both the lives of people in Vietnam and that of Asian Americans in the United States. This was a crucial message developed through frameworks of analysis, first widely utilized by the Black Panther Party (BPP), which saw domestic racism and imperialism as two sides of the same coin of oppression.
Asian American leftist organizations formed their methods of resistance and principles of protest through the work of the BPP. According to Ogbar, “Berkeley’s Asian Student newspaper provided a history of the Asian student movement and acknowledged the influence that black students brought to the college arena. ‘Our black brothers and sisters were the first to cry out in protest in the civil rights movement and were the first to make militant radical demands for the transformation of society’.4 Inspired by the BPP who wanted to organize their communities – whether through educational events, social programs, or community security measures – with the intent of building community-centered resources and infrastructure to resist forces of racism and imperialism, radical leftist organizations of the Asian American Movement (such as the Red Guard, I Wor Kuen) followed. The influence and imprint of the BPP were easily detectable in the infrastructure and programs that organizations on the Asian American Movement’s radical left implemented. For the Red Guard, a leftist organization in San Francisco, their resistance looked very closely to that of the BPP; they armed themselves as a strategic and protective measure for their community against police brutality.5 Furthermore, just as the BPP had with their community education and breakfast programs, the Red Guard organized to address social and class inequities within their community – they organized to prevent the shutting down of the local TB testing center, and created a free breakfast program to feed children and senior citizens.6 For I Wor Kuen (IWK), a Marxist organization in the East Coast, they created their own version of the BPP’s 10-point program, IWK produced a 12-Point Platform, which pushed for autonomy and self-determination for all Asian and Americans. In the spirit of building community and providing resources, IWK also created a bilingual day care program and made tuberculosis testing more accessible.7
The radical leftist contingent of the Asian American Movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s sought to create a political identity that affirmed their distance from whiteness not as a point of shame, but as a point of pride, organize directly to destroy race and class oppression, and to build the capacity for community resistance by providing educational and material resources. Their goals worked in tandem with the Black Power Movement, because they were inspired by Black resistance. Evidence of this lies in the history of organizations and individuals of two different racial justice movements showing up for one another – Figure 2 is merely a snapshot of the lineage of interracial solidarity work that has occurred for decades.
Asian Coalition Flyer for 1971 Anti-War March
Richard Aoki at the Asian American Political Alliance’s support for the Free Huey campaign, ca. 1968. Looking on at left is Richard’s friend Douglas Daniels. Reprinted from Howard L. Bingham, ‘Black Panthers,’ 1968
Le Espiritu, Yen. “Coming Together: The Asian American Movement.” In Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities, 19-52. Temple University Press, 1992. .
Ogbar, Jeffrey O.G. “Yellow Power: The Formation of Asian-American Nationalism in the Age of Black Power 1966-1975”. Souls 3, no. 3 (Summer 2001): 29-38.
Wei, William. “Origins of the Movement.” In The Asian American Movement, 11-43. Temple University Press, 1993. .
Xiaojian Zhao, Edward J.W. Park. Asian Americans: An Encyclopedia of Social, Cultural, Economic, and Political History (Westport: Greenwood: 2013).
1Ogbar, Jeffrey O.G. “Yellow Power: The Formation of Asian-American Nationalism in the Age of Black Power 1966-1975”. Souls 3, no. 3 (Summer 2001): 31.
2Le Espiritu, Yen. “Coming Together: The Asian American Movement.” In Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities, 44. Temple University Press, 1992. .
3Ibid. Pg. 44
4Ogbar, Jeffrey O.G. “Yellow Power: The Formation of Asian-American Nationalism in the Age of Black Power 1966-1975”. Souls 3, no. 3 (Summer 2001): 29-30.
5Ibid. Pg. 32
6Ibid. Pg. 32
7Xiaojian Zhao, Edward J.W. Park. Asian Americans: An Encyclopedia of Social, Cultural, Economic, and Political History (Westport: Greenwood: 2013), 529