Densho Digital Repository
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Mike Murase Interview II
Narrator: Mike Murase
Interviewer: Karen Umemoto
Location: Los Angeles, California
Date: January 15, 2023
Densho ID: ddr-densho-1000-526

<Begin Segment 1>

KU: Thank you, Mike, for doing this interview again with us. And I think one of the attributes of one thing about your life that's remarkable and somewhat unique is your involvement in the Black community as an Asian American, and as an Asian American, very active in the Japanese American and Asian American community. And so I know that part of that has to do, is related to just growing up in the Black community. And so I know you talked about your growing up years before, but can you talk about, generally speaking, your affinity towards solidarity work and how your life, your overall growing up experiences may have oriented you in that direction?

MM: Okay. Well, first of all, when I was nine years old, that's back in 1956, I came to this country with my parents. And although I consider myself a Sansei, a third generation Japanese American because my father was born in America and went back to Japan, and I was born there. So anyway, at nine I came here, and as I was coming here, as we were preparing to come here, I studied various books about the United States and what it was about. And so I had the impression that America was all white people, because that's what I saw in books and in periodicals and such. But the first place that we lived in as an immigrant family is what's now called South Central L.A. or the Crenshaw area. And I lived not too far from the L.A. Coliseum, which is part of that area. And in my neighborhood it was mostly Black people and also quite a few Japanese Americans who had either come back from the war or immigrated like I did in the postwar period. And so that Crenshaw area was a very, already a very diverse, mostly Black and Asian, some whites, and for some reason, I don't remember the presence or impact of Latinos at all during that time. I thought it was just white, Black and Asian. But anyway, coming here and growing up in a working class community, my parents went to work right away, so both of them were out. So I was pretty much a latchkey kid, had some freedom after classes to just roam around playing. So I made good friends with a lot of Black kids initially. In fact, in some ways, I felt more comfortable with them in the beginning than I did with the Sansei kids who had some reservations about making friends with an FOB, "Fresh Off the Boat." And I think the historical reasons for why many Nisei and Sansei kids sort of rejected things that were too Japanese, which I represented at the time. I didn't speak any English, and so that was the whole process of learning English and kind of acclimating to this culture. But in that process, I feel like in the early years, a lot of my Black friends in the immediate neighborhood and on my street and things, they really helped me a lot. So I feel very comfortable with Black people, Black culture. By the time I got to junior high school and high school, I learned, too, that a lot of JA kids, Japanese American kids, related to Black culture, Black experiences, Black music. And so those were a big influence for us growing up.

KU: When you got involved at UCLA you found yourself in the midst of a lot of the movement activities and you talked about the influence of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power movement, the Vietnam War movement, in shaping your attitude towards the, what was the term, "Third World" people at that time?

MM: Uh-huh.

KU: Can you kind of trace that development of your identity, too, as part of the Third World people, and how did what you just said earlier about your childhood and then coming to UCLA and being in this environment, how did you react to what was happening then and this rise in the idea of the Third World people? A lot of young people don't, aren't really familiar with that term.

MM: No. I would say that in junior high school and high school, I went to Foshay junior high school and Los Angeles High School. And they were both very diverse, as I said, so I developed a sense of comfort and identity and that sort of mixed minority community feeling. When I came to UCLA, that was the first time I was introduced to an environment in which most of the people were white, and it was kind of a culture shock. Because in those days, UCLA and other campuses didn't have forty, fifty percent Asian, maybe at most ten percent. And so Asian and Japanese American students on the UCLA campus stood out. We gravitated toward each other and we, maybe in some cases we knew people from other neighborhoods. So we came together and started relating to the Japanese and Asian social and cultural things. This was pre-Asian American movement.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2023 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 2>

KU: And then in terms of the idea of a Third World, the concept of the Third World that grew out of that period...

MM: Yeah. So I think in retrospect, I think I was being introduced to a lot of different kinds of ideas and perspectives as a college student, as a freshman and sophomore. I would go check out different lectures on campus and outside the classroom. And I think initially I think my development of the consciousness about my identity had to do with being Japanese, Japanese American. And I think within that, I realized that I was a little bit different from the Sanseis, too. I was able to make a lot of friends, maybe, at UCLA. And there was a group called the Nisei Bruin Club. By the time we were at UCLA, most of us were Sansei, but the name and the organization, Nisei Bruin Club, that was founded before the war, was still around. So we sort of revived that and created a social organization around that. But at the same time, we were noticing that there were very few Brown and Black students here. And so I think we started out kind of not really thinking about them very much, but I think the concept of Third World, in working with other minority students, came, I think, probably the biggest impetus was the Third World Strike at San Francisco State, that was already '69. But prior to that, I think influences from... I told this story many times before, but I was at UCLA when Malcolm X was assassinated in New York, and how much impact that assassination and the life of Malcolm X had on Black students, the few Black students that I knew on campus, I think maybe made me think about, I want to know more about their history. And then by 1966 when the Black Panthers were formed, they had good relations with students on the Berkeley campus, but then they expanded and they started making trips down south and had speaking engagements at UCLA. I remember in particular, Eldridge Cleaver speaking at Pauley Pavilion, and that was kind of an eye-opening thing to me, too. And I think whenever we took up campus struggles, we tried to talk to the Black students and other students as well.

And the concept of Third World really comes out of a paradigm or kind of a social construct that existed at that time where the world was divided up into First World, Second World and Third World. And at that time, the First World was the two superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The Second World was the developing countries like countries in Europe, Japan, Australia. And then the Third World was considered "under" or "undeveloped" countries. That's a term of art. So that included most of Africa, most of Asia, most of Latin America, and so that was the Third World. In terms of us as minority people in this country, we started using the term Third World people because we identify with all those international struggles. I would say in today's vocabulary it would be POC or BIPOC, that sort of concept of uniting people of color. And I think today it expands beyond that to women, the disabled, LGBT community, all of that. And any people who are disadvantaged, marginalized, oppressed by the society. But back in those days, we were talking mostly about race and ethnicity.

KU: I think during that time there were a lot of independence movements going on, and a lot in a lot of the formerly colonized countries. What did people think about those movements and how did people relate any similarities or differences under that term?

MM: I think for Asian Americans, probably the biggest international influence was the fact that the Vietnam War was going on. So I think we started learning about why it was going on, and we naturally were opposed to wars and military expansion, and so we were for peace. But as we studied the situation in Vietnam, started learning about U.S. imperialism, the quest for hegemony and control of the world and the competition between the two superpowers, Soviet Union and the U.S. And so I would say, like all of those influences, starting with Vietnam, but other parts of Southeast Asia and Asia, Latin America. There were people like Che Guevara and Castro and the Cuban revolution and all of that. And if you looked at Africa as, I don't know, something like fifty-four countries or something, and all of them were colonized prior to that. You talk about the Belgian Congo, Cameroon, the French, the British, the Dutch, all of those European, Portuguese, had economic and political control of many of those countries in Africa. But in the 1960s, there was a, sort of a mass spark that was lit of these national liberation struggles. And so there's a slogan, "Nations want liberation, countries want freedom and people want revolution." And basically, I think, out of all those struggles were thinkers, philosophers, political leaders, who wrote about those experiences. And so we started studying how did they go about waging a national liberation struggle, a freedom struggle. And naturally, we wanted to support those struggles, too. And so little by little we learned about the connections between the oppression in this country and the impact that capitalism and imperialism has internationally.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 2023 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

KU: I'm not going to go in chronological order, but I think this is a good segue to your involvement in the Free South Africa Movement. Can you tell me when that took place, how that came up, and how that related both temporally and politically to your involvement in the Jesse Jackson campaign as well? Because yeah, I know that there was some interrelationships.

MM: Okay. So in the 1960s and early '70s, or maybe throughout the '70s, I think most activists of color had sort of returned to their own communities and doing a lot of work within those communities. And in my case was Little Tokyo, but in other cases it was Chinatown or going back to communities that people grew up in, whether it's East L.A., South Central, or other places. And so we didn't have that much interaction. But in the 1980s, when Reverend Jesse Jackson decided to run for president, I think within the Black community there were a lot of, they were not all unified either. But one thing that I noticed was that a number of mainstream Black, for example, ministers and other community leaders, they were getting behind this effort to support Jesse Jackson. And even though I was not that interested in any electoral politics at that time, and I was kind of disdainful, I didn't feel like electoral politics could kind of achieve the kind of changes that I was hoping for. But in seeing Jesse and seeing how the Black community, particularly the masses of Black people on the street, they really rallied around him and his agenda, which was a very progressive agenda that pushed the whole presidential debate to the left. Without his involvement in the campaign, I think it would have been sort of the status quo. It was Democrats and Republicans, but it was kind of Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum kind of situation. So anyway, myself and a number of other people who I worked with at the time decided that we should be supporting Jesse. Not only because it was not just a symbolic thing, but it was really important to have a Black leader be seen as a leader of all people, and particularly one with a good progressive agenda. So a number of us decided to get involved in the 1984 Jesse Jackson campaign. In my case, I stayed involved and I went on to the second run that he had in 1988, which I can talk about later. But it was during that time that I sort of reconnected with and met a lot of new Black people from the communities that I grew up in. And they were mainstream Black Democrats, they were more progressive and revolutionary-minded Black activists who all took up the Jesse Jackson campaign. Because I think what he was able to contribute was a different perspective from what you see from the mainstream politicians. And different possibilities, different dreams, and I think that's what motivated people to support the agenda. To have those kinds of things, having issues about Asian Americans being talked about on national TV for the first time. And I don't want to kind of deviate too much, but, for example, the Vincent Chin case. I mean, Jesse Jackson was the only presidential candidate who met with the mother, who met with the community in the wake of Vincent Chin being murdered by these white auto workers. And that was, I think, around 1983.

So all of this was going on, and in the process, I'm meeting people and really learning a lot from them about their experiences and what it's like. And in that process, I was introduced to a struggle in South Africa that was going on for, ever since the colonizers took over. But particularly beginning in the early 1950s and then into the '60s and '70s. That was during the time that I was growing up, but I was not aware of what the meaning of the South African struggle was. After the Jackson campaign, or in between, I met people who were taking up the issue of South Africa. And at that time, it was still under the apartheid regime, which meant that the Dutch Africans controlled the economy, controlled the political system, and the police system of South Africa. And so there was really a grassroots freedom struggle going on in South Africa that I had no idea was going on until the '80s. But when I learned about it, I was really interested and wanted to... one of the things that they were trying to do is build up international support. Because in the South African struggle with the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela. What they had figured out was that they had to have fighters both inside South Africa, but to be in a liberation movement in South Africa was illegal, so they had to be underground. In some cases they had to work from outside the country, so got a chance to meet with some of the South Africans that were in Los Angeles waging the struggle. So the concept of international support really made sense to me and I wanted to do what I could do to lend that support to dismantle and end apartheid.

And so I was able to meet, and we organized a group called the Los Angeles Free South African Movement. Free South African Movement, FSAM as an idea, sort of like Black Lives Matter, there's a sort of conceptual thing and sometimes an organizational thing but not always the same. But there was a movement around it, and so we organized boycotts against Shell, who had a big stake in South Africa. We organized against gold dealers and people who were really ravaging the resources of Africa, corporations. So we found a lot of things that we could do to be active in Los Angeles and support the struggle to end apartheid. So I think that's kind of how I got involved in it and I stayed with it for a while and eventually I was one of the coordinators of the Los Angeles Free South African Movement. And we tried to build from the Black base into a multiracial group that could have impact city-wide, and I remember going to, like, Beverly Hills City Council to demand that they divest their funds from South Africa and we did that from city to city and statewide and things. And we had good political leadership. And not only Jesse Jackson nationally, but Maxine Waters, who was a state assemblyperson at the time but now a longstanding congressperson who provided leadership on a national level and the state level, but we were sort of the grassroots activists. So we helped each other in terms of influence and building up the human resources.

KU: How would you summarize the most important accomplishments of the L.A. chapter of FSAM during that time?

MM: I think, I would say, taken as a whole, all the little activities that we did, sometimes we had twenty-five people in a demonstration, other times we got four thousand people. But keeping, not letting people forget about South Africa is what we were trying to do. And I think the international support movement overall that existed in many countries, I think we were part of that so I think we could take credit for providing support to the struggle of ANC and the South African people. And in fact, I had a chance to go to Durban, South Africa, to attend the conference of the African National Congress. The ANC was the primary or the largest liberation organization that existed at the time. And so when I got a chance to go there, and by chance I met Mandela in person. And what I remember is that I was introduced to him as one of the people that provided international support. And so he thanks me for being in the struggle. It's like I'm thinking Mandela is thanking us. We should be thanking him for the leadership and the sacrifices he made. And it was a very profound and a once in a lifetime experience for me. So I think the L.A. chapter did a lot in concert with others to popularize the idea of ending apartheid.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 2023 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

KU: I know that Mandela came to L.A. and you were one of the organizers of his talk. Was that before or after, and can you give me just a little bit of a chronology?

MM: Yeah. So just again talking about Jackson's campaigns, but Jackson's campaigns were 1984 and '88. Our work in FSAM started somewhere in between. And at that time, not only that apartheid existed, but Nelson Mandela and many other South African leaders were imprisoned. Mandela was, he had been imprisoned for about twenty-seven years. And in 1990, he was, because of the international pressure, he was released by the apartheid regime and came out, and he made a tour of the U.S. as one of the first things that he did within a few months of being released from Robben Island prison in South Africa. And so each city organized sort of welcoming rallies and other activities. In L.A. there were a number of activities we had, but the most memorable is that a lot of us organized the masses of people and particularly, I think, in the Black community. Parents felt that it was very important for Black kids to see the face of this Black hero. And so we organized a six-hour concert and rally at the L.A. Coliseum. I think the capacity is about ninety thousand and we practically filled it. That was 1990, I think. And so, again, I feel like our grassroots efforts, day-to-day efforts, yielded something in terms of exposure of Mandela to a whole new generation of people. And I think having pride in that as Black people, as human beings, to see that happen, that's very gratifying.

KU: Is there any moment about that, is there anything about that really that sticks in your mind?

MM: Yeah. Well, there are several things. One is that, in the Free South Africa Movement, as I mentioned, Maxine Waters was a very critical figure. And she was dealing with other people at her level, because what happened was, once they made the announcement that Nelson and Winnie Mandela would be touring the U.S., all these people came out of the woodwork and they wanted to be the ones that organized the welcoming. So she had to sort of fight these people off and say they're legitimate. I think that the people who worked on these issues for all these years should have some say-so in how the tour was conducted and all that. I remember a lot of instances in which Maxine had to kind of back other people off and sort of put us, the Free South Africa Movement at the center of things. And I think... the other thing that I remember is that we took up a collection.


MM: So when Nelson and Winnie Mandela decided to tour the U.S., all over the country, all these people just started coming out of the woodworks wanting to be the person to claim the victory. And so in L.A., Maxine waters realized that the L.A. South African movement had, the role that she played in the leadership of the movement should not be ignored by people who just show up the week before. And so we had a lot of battles with other forces that wanted to celebrate Mandela. But the other story that I remember, it's not really historically or politically important, but we wanted to raise some money for the ANC, and to... I think in the Black community and any church-going people, they're used to passing the bucked or the basket, collecting donations. So we decided that's what we're going to do. But the challenge, logistically, of passing baskets around, people all around, inside the coliseum, was challenging. But we had designed a system where we would do it very quickly and be able to collect money. But it depended on the lights, the house lights being turned on, so the audience are in the lights, because we didn't want money being passed in the dark. So anyway, for some reason, the lights didn't go on when they were supposed to go on. But we couldn't stop, so we kept collecting money. And we were able to raise about fifty or sixty thousand dollars. I think we should have raised about ten times that. But anyway... and they were mostly dollars and five dollar bills, and so it took six people for three days to count and unwrinkle all those bills, but that was kind of memorable.

The other is that, on the day -- this is before that rally -- on the day that we heard that Mandela was going to be released, we called an emergency meeting. And because of the time difference between South Africa and here, when he got released it was like four or five in the morning here. But we stayed up all night watching this little TV, crowded around this little TV, watching him come out of prison. And so there's a South African dance called toyi-toyi. We were meeting at a little house across the street from First AME church, and so all of us, when we heard the news and we saw Mandela on TV, we went outside and did the toyi-toyi as the sun was coming up. That was a memorable experience, too.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 2023 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

KU: So this was... the event itself was after the, and the freeing of Mandela was after the EDA campaign. So maybe we could rewind a little and talk about Jesse's campaign, and how it was that you were introduced to the campaign, recruited to help with the campaign. I was one of the co-chairs of the L.A. campaign with Patricia Recinos in 1984, and things were very... you know what I mean? A little chaotic during that time. But it was very exciting, a lot of lessons were learned from the '84 campaign that were, went to the '88 campaign. Can you talk about, first, how did you get introduced and involved in the Jackson campaign specifically?

MM: So by that time, I was very steeped in doing work in Little Tokyo with the Anti-Eviction Task Force of Little Tokyo, People's Rights Organization, and the beginnings of the redress movement. And I also had, kind of, developed a view over time, sort of an ultra-left view that no significant change is going to come through, happen through electoral work, through voting. And so we had to have some discussions, and exchanged views about that, and I think I was persuaded by the fact that we had this African American with roots in the Civil Rights Movement, with a progressive agenda that really we should be supporting. And so just before the campaign in '83, I worked with a collective, we're like a group of people, activists nationally. So there was an internal discussion, even among Black members, of this trend, we're all convinced that Jesse should be the one that we support. Because as a messenger, as a person, he had flaws, and they were very commonly known. But through that discussion, it was decided that, yeah, we should put our resources into helping, and that that would advance our own struggle as well. Because basically, by that time, we were talking about some fundamental change in society, social justice on a magnitude, it was national, and that impacted everybody in this country. So it was a much bigger idea than I'm used to thinking about in Little Tokyo, dealing with City Hall and all of that, which I think is very important still, and we still do that. But to get, introduce the idea, I was thinking about white farmers in Iowa. They were laborers in Vermont and South Carolina, and a lot of things were going on that Jesse Jackson's, what he called the Rainbow Coalition, brought together.

And so in that, I started volunteering for the Jackson campaign in '84. Like you said, it was kind of a chaotic situation. The people that came to the campaign had very little electoral experience, whereas people like Mondale (in '84) or Dukakis (in '88), these are names that young people probably never heard of, but they were white presidential candidates who came out of the Democratic party machinery. And so they have a lot of resources of years, decades of experience in running campaigns. Jesse Jackson had none of that. So we had to learn and create everything on our own. And one of the things that we had to put together is, in the state of California at the time, there were forty-five congressional districts. And we had to reach out to all forty-five districts from Eureka to San Diego, and to meet people and to organize them into an effective campaign operation. So somehow I got put in charge of that. And I say that because, normally, in other campaigns where they have those established people, they already have the infrastructure to just make it happen, "all of you have to do this." We had to build it from scratch, but it was a fun experience, but it was very challenging as well. And I think... and this is before email, internet, computers, anyway. So what I did, we didn't have an Excel spreadsheet, but I handwrote the forty-five congressional districts, who the people were who were representing them in the Jackson camp, the phone numbers and all that, collected all that. And that kind of work, I'm good at, sort of conceptualizing how to put together operations. So I think that was recognized by the campaign, so they wanted me to keep doing that, and then even as a volunteer, giving me more and more responsibility. So it was kind of like one thing led to another.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 2023 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

And so after the '84 campaign, it was such an emotional and moving experience, particularly as it culminated in the San Francisco Democratic National Convention, and Jesse Jackson gave a speech called, "Our Time Has Come." And it was so moving that people in the Jackson delegation were crying. But that kind of gave many of us the energy to continue trying to build that solidarity among BIPOC and other oppressed people. And I would even say that, again, it's not the chronology, but years later, when Barack Obama ran for President, many of the lessons that were learned in the Jackson campaign, organizing, politics, compromises, everything, whether Barack Obama acknowledges it or not, I think that experience that people had in working on the Jackson campaign, really helped. And the whole concept of Obama bringing together a similar coalition, the only difference was that Obama is not as progressive as Jesse. But still, I would say that being the first, being such a moving speaker, having good, some good platforms, made it really worthwhile to support him. So I would say the contributions of the Jesse Jackson campaign go way beyond just the two campaigns. Even before Obama -- which was many years later -- but immediately after the Jackson campaigns, we had a number of Black, brown, Asian, Native American people, run for local office. And like I'm almost familiar with California, but in the Bay Area, in L.A., I maybe name some recognizable names of politicians whose roots are in the Jackson campaign. So it was a very influential and very inspiring experience for a lot of people.

KU: Can you share some of those names?

MM: Yes. So in L.A., people like Antonio Villaraigosa, who became mayor, Gilbert Cedillo, who became a councilman, Warren Furutani, who held a number of offices. Karen Bass, the current mayor, there's lots of people. Like in the Bay Area, people like Wilma Chan, who was an elected official in state and county level for many years, who unfortunately recently died in an accident. Mabel Teng, the Chinese American who held political office in San Francisco. Steve Phillips, the author of Brown is The New White, and the new book called How We Win the Civil War, very influential books that I recommend to people. He was a student at Stanford, so he was in Students for Jackson, along with a number of other people. So there are people who went in that direction of staying in the political world. I never thought about running for office myself, but I also worked in the political arena for many years after that, both as a community organizer in South Central, and at the same time working as the district director for Congresswoman, Maxine Waters.

KU: Before we go into that, because that's a whole another chapter, I'd love to find out more about... I'm wondering if you could talk about what the lessons were from the '84 campaign that were then applied to the '88 campaign? Because there were a lot of growing pains during that eight-year-plus period.

MM: So because Jesse Jackson had done most of his work in the South, and he is a son of the South, he's from South Carolina, and he had worked with SCLC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, that Martin Luther King, Dr. King -- this is Dr. King weekend -- that he led. So Jesse was one of the disciples of Martin Luther King. And so their approach is nonviolence and fighting for civil rights and political rights, and based mostly in the South. And so I think in '84, he used that base in the Black community as the foundation for building his campaign. So it was very much Black-dominated and very much whatever internal strife there was, it seemed to be among Black leaders in that campaign. But the difference in the four years after '88, the concept of Rainbow Coalition that Reverend Jackson was pushing became more real. And so by '88, in California, I would say, many, many Asian Americans, Arab Americans, Latinos, progressive whites, peace activists, labor leaders, many people came around to create a more representative Rainbow Coalition with Jesse Jackson and other Black leaders still at the leadership of it. And I think we saw that as kind of a model, but not only for electoral work in the future, but kind of a model for changing society overall. And if you took elections as one arena of struggle, there was also demonstrations, mass organizing, the day to day work, working in factories, working with students, all those things combined. I think they were all battles within the same one, same struggle. And so all of those things, I think, gave all of us, gave me a lot of hope about what can be done.

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<Begin Segment 7>

KU: If you had to say, through that work, what were the insights that you carry forward about how to do coalition, effective coalition work that you carried forward into your coalition building work beyond the Jackson campaign? What personally did you, what personal lessons did you draw?

MM: I think one thing... well, first of all, I mean, I think every experience like that teaches you a lot. So you had to be open to learning new things, you had to listen and to take into consideration the ideas that other people have, because other people have other experiences. And so in a coalition, you can't go into a coalition with your own agenda, and just to promote that agenda, you had to look at what the needs of every group or individual is in that coalition. And so that means that, in terms of how you, in terms of your demeanor, how to function, you have to organize it in such a way where it's fair to people. On a one-to-one basis you have to be respectful of each other, and understanding differences and willingness to learn about other people's, not only their politics, but their culture, their history, their experience, personal experiences. So I would say that's important, to listen and learn. The other is that, I think, in the case of Jesse Jackson campaign, especially in '88, so many people were so enthused that they wanted to do all kinds of things. And like you said, it was chaotic. And so to be able to take the spontaneous sentiments of people who don't have organizational skills, but they still care about someone who represents their views, and they're considered leaders. So you have to really... I'm sorry, got lost in that. But what was I saying?

KU: The people who got involved more spontaneously, you could back up a little bit, too, how do you deal with all this support that kind of rushes in?

MM: So the Jackson campaign, one of the beauties of it was that it touched the hearts of many people who were sort of not considered in society, the marginalized people, and that's who he was targeting. So it brought a lot of people together, but it meant that there was so much spontaneous sentiment to want to do things. But most people, if they did anything, had grassroots experience or activist experience. But we learned that in elections, there are rules, there's the ethics rules, there are finance rules, there are organizational structures that so-called campaign experts think are the best. And so to harness and to organize that spontaneous sentiment, I think is a very important role that activists and political figures played in that movement. And so one of the lessons is not to say, "Hey, you don't know what you're doing, so back off." You have to take that sentiment and teach and find a place for them to be productive in the campaign, whether by going out to registered voters on the street or to help set up chairs when there's an assembly, and Jesse Jackson was coming to speak. All kinds of things that people could do, and I think through that experience, people of different communities were able to work together and learn about each other. And so strength and bonds that comes out of, like concrete work and ideas and things. So it's going beyond just relating at arm's length, superficial level, but really getting to know people, getting to know each other. And in many cases, we didn't just say Black people organized Black people, Asians knock on Asian doors and all of that, we did everything together. And I think Jesse Jackson's platform really helped us do that because he talked about so many different issues, and he's going around the country, while he's talking, he's learning about other groups, and then he would relay it to us. Jesse Jackson is the first presidential candidate to come to Little Tokyo, and he had a rally there in 1984. When he, like I was saying earlier, if he went to another community to talk, and he might bring up the subject of redress, or subject of Vincent Chin, or subject of something going on with the Asian community. I mean, progressive platform on immigration was part of this agenda, very different from even other mainstream Democrats.

KU: I mean, a lot of those lessons are movement building lessons in general.

MM: It is.

KU: But it gets sometimes more complicated, but a lot of people from different cultural backgrounds.

MM: Right. And I think, you know, speaking of that, when I first got involved and I was being recognized for my organizing skills and such, there were Black people who were in the campaign resented that. Because, like I said, it was strong in '84, but it existed in '88, too. Some Black people felt like, "Jesse Jackson belongs to us, so why don't we get to be the leadership people? Why don't we be the people that get invited to their banquets and whatever." And I don't want to make it sound petty because I think it's not petty. I think it's a rightful idea and feeling that Black people have about claiming Jesse as someone that came out of their community. I think the challenge for non-Black people is to really understand that, and also to be able to learn from their experiences. And in some cases, where it was appropriate, for us to teach the Black community about what the Asian experience is, experiences are. So I think having that environment where that kind of exchange could take place, I think that was a big, big contribution, too. But I remember some incidents where, like, as the representative of the California campaign, I had to go to places outside L.A. One time I had to go out to San Bernardino to meet with a group of Jackson supporters there, and when I got there, they were mostly Black, lots of people older than me, people who had been in Democratic clubs for many, many years, and who had organized in churches and things. And so naturally, they felt like an affinity to Jesse Jackson and wanted to claim him and be a little bit possessive about him.

Anyway, so when I went to the San Bernardino event to talk about the campaign and how it functions, how they have to raise money and all this other stuff, I met with a lot of hostility, and very openly saying, like, "You're an Asian guy, why do you lead this campaign?" I had gone out there with a few of my Black friends from L.A. And one of them was a guy named Brother James who was with the Nation of Islam. He had been in prison, he's an ex-felon, shaven head, dark skin, and he kind of looked intimidating, talked kind of loud and intimidating. But anyway, he was there with me. And so when the Black people in San Bernardino started questioning me and kind of being antagonistic, Brother James was the one that stood up and said, "Jesse Jackson is relying on this person (...) to move us forward, and so you need to get behind this," and that sort of calmed them down to have that backing. Because for many Black people, not only in San Bernardino and other places, too, because of the circumstances, they have been isolated, they were stuck in the Black community, they didn't have a lot of interactions with Asians. So I think it's understandable, but there were a lot of those kind of growing pains for everybody to be able... and I had to stand my ground about, okay, I was assigned to do this, and I'm going to do this, so you've got to learn what the campaign requirements are and all that. So there were things like that that happened. And in some cases, like some of those people that I had conflicts with, we became friends later. And sometimes, their situation, things were so intense that I thought we would go to blows. But even those lessons are very worthwhile, being able to continue and not just walk away from conflict like that.

And I think the lesson that I learned about that, too, is that whenever there's a conflict or, we used to use word "contradiction," there were contradictions in society between the capitalists, the one-percenters, the Wall Street corporate, whatever, versus the rest of us. But we don't interact with that one percent all the time, so a lot of the conflict, and the differences come out amongst the people, among the people that are working together. And so the lesson of how do we resolve contradictions among the people? Because in terms of dealing with the political power structure, we will be as antagonistic, as confrontational, as loud as we can, as we need to be, because we're not being heard otherwise. But with contradictions among the people, you have one idea, I have one idea, let's talk it out. You don't have to resort to name-calling, ad hominem attacks. You talk about ideas, talk about plans, talk about activities, talk about how to take the next step. And so we learned that way about... and I think that's a very important lesson in working with any group. I mean, even within my own family, there's conflicts. But I had to figure out ways to deal with it other than to talk bad about them behind their backs or to, you know, like get into physical confrontations, that sort of thing.

KU: Very valuable lessons for all things, really. Did you confront... because I know there's a lot of anti-Blackness in the Asian community, and did you confront that in the Jackson campaign, and what lessons did you draw?

MM: Yeah. You know, you're talking about among, within the Japanese American or Asian communities. I was in the, sort of the hub of the campaign, and one of the spontaneous things that happened was things like the Asian Americans for Jackson, Latinos for Jackson, Native Americans for Jackson, Labor for Jackson, Students for Jackson, these are all real names of things that developed. And so there were many, sort of, centers and organized groups, and I think to be able to harness that energy, harness that enthusiasm I think was, I don't know how we ever figured it out. But I think it's a really ongoing struggle. And within that I would say anti-Blackness, I didn't think of it as a major issue, a major problem, maybe because the Asians who were anti-Black maybe wouldn't be part of that campaign. I mean, when we went out to community groups to talk to people, we occasionally got questions about, "Well, do you really think a Black person can be President? That's a tough job for Black person," that kind of stuff. I mean, that's very offensive. But I think, by and large, we tried to do a lot of education, we wrote articles and things, and put forward the Jesse Jackson platform and how it benefits not only racial and ethnic minorities, but the multicultural majority of this country, because that's what we're fighting for, that's what Jesse stood for. So in the end, I think being able to build up forces that way is really for the masses, the majority of this country. And I would say, too, in terms of the Japanese American community, I think maybe because of the camp experience, and it's related to, but because of the further acculturation, Americanization of the, within the Asian community, I'd say Japanese Americans are most thought to be more assimilated, more acculturated, more American, and adopting those values and things. But we found that Asian Americans as a whole, mostly either the second or the third largest groups in terms of percentage of people who supported Jackson. Other than the Black community, we were neck and neck with the Arab Americans, Arab Americans and Asian Americans really came out in support of Jesse. And I think Asian American operatives who worked for other campaigns, who were part of the Democratic party structure, they were really surprised by how much support Jesse Jackson got among Asians. But I think, in the end, like, for example in California, we captured over thirty percent of the vote, which was very significant.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 2023 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 8>

KU: I'd like to move on to how that parleyed into becoming Chief of Staff for Congresswoman Maxine Waters. And I don't know what office she had exactly at that time.

MM: During the Jackson campaigns in the '80s, she was the assemblyman representing a district in South Central L.A. And she, again, looking at the history --

KU: Can you back up? Can you redo that by saying "Maxine Waters," so that my question is in there?

MM: Okay, yeah. So in the Jackson campaign, all presidential campaigns were divided up into separate individual state campaigns. And you have different times when you vote in the primary, right? But in California, they had to be a statewide organization, and then local entities below that. But I think given the history of Black America, and looking at... this is way before the campaigns themselves, but the Civil Rights Movement was led in many ways by the Black church and Black ministers. Because they were the community leaders, and they were the ones, in some cases, political leaders in the sense of providing political guidance. Because you remember that in the '50s and '60s, coming out of Jim Crow, coming out of the, a lot of the strife that was still going on, there were very few Black elected officials, particularly in the South, you have voter suppression laws that prevented Black people from exercising political power. So when it came to California, even though Congresswoman Maxine Waters was, at the time, a state assemblyperson, which is, in the scheme of things, state elected officials are a little lower in esteem and in power and a lot of other things, than members of congress or other national figures. But she became Jesse Jackson's main representative in California because of the work, because she's herself a progressive politician, and she had done a lot of work around a multitude of progressive domestic and international issues.

We had that, and then apart from... so Congresswoman Waters, I got introduced to her and started working in the Jackson campaign, and worked very closely with her. So once the two campaigns were over, I was thinking about going back to Legal Aid to be a lawyer again, or do something else. But I was given an opportunity to work on a number of different things in the Black community that congresswoman wanted me to stay around and work on (...), but I wasn't working in her office at the time. One of the jobs that I had was, we had an office in Nickerson Gardens, which is one of the largest, in fact, the largest public housing project west of the Mississippi. So the project was called Project Build. And what it was is to train people, not necessarily skills development, but how to find jobs, how to keep jobs. Because unemployment was a huge, huge issue in South Central L.A. And so we set up, and particularly among young Black men who were, many of them unemployed. And we can get into the whole thing about drugs and all of that, too, but anyway, so we tried to address employment issues. And so we would go around to the six housing projects in Watts and South Central, Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Courts, Jordan Downs, Hacienda, Avalon Gardens, I'm missing one or two. And we would set up seminars, it's a three-day seminar in which people come to learn about how to prepare to be part of the workforce. And there again, Congresswoman Waters was instrumental in getting the funds to do this, and so we would have the congresswoman come in the first day to talk to the participants, like I said, mostly young Black men. And she would give the "tough love" speech and say, "You got to do this," "You got to get yourself together," all this stuff. And then we would get into things like how to write a resume, or in many cases, the kind of jobs that were applying for didn't require a resume, it was more like a job application. So how do you fill out a job application? And there's a box that says, "Have you ever been arrested?" "Have you ever been convicted?" And a lot of, in those days... you have to answer those openly, and it was a stumbling block for many people. Because of the, how would you say, the practice of mass incarceration in this country that targeted the Black community in particular, you couldn't find young men who didn't have a record. Well, I'm exaggerating, but it was very difficult. So we did training on even things like, okay, well, you have to take the bus to get to work, and you have an interview at eight a.m. tomorrow morning. So you're going to have to practice. Let's look at -- we didn't have GPS then -- let's look at a map. You're going to get on this bus here at this corner, and then you're going to go to this corner, this corner. And we're going to practice, do a dry run of how long it takes to get there. So the day before, they're doing all of this, and then the next day, they're ready. And so they had to think about, okay, what system do you have for how you get yourself out of bed, how you wake up. Do you have an alarm? Do you have somebody that can wake you? All of those very mundane routines that people had to think through because they weren't used to that. And so we tried to do all those things. So that kind of organizing I did for (two) years, and then through that, I started working for Congresswoman Waters' office.

KU: You worked with her, as her... can you say what role you played, how long you worked there? You have 1992 to 2006, which is fourteen years, right?

MM: Yeah.

KU: Okay.

<End Segment 8> - Copyright © 2023 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 9>

KU: So if you can maybe talk about your tenure there, and yeah, how you felt about working at the office and what you felt you were able to contribute?

MM: Yeah. So I started working for the congresswoman in 1992. And that was like, maybe her first term in Congress. She had just been elected maybe a year or two before that. I think the first term might have been 1990, so it's going into the second term. I started working for her because the project that I spoke of, the job training program, lost its funding. And I think we, Congresswoman Waters and I had built up a relationship by then, and she hired me, not as district director in the beginning, but as sort of a special projects staff. And then maybe a year or two later, the existing incumbent district director left the office. So then I became district director for the last, maybe fourteen, fifteen years of the time that I was with her. So in that, I think most people think of working in a congressional office, if you're in D.C., it was mostly legislative and lobbying and kind of maneuvering in Washington, D.C. In the district offices, a lot of it is based on what's called constituent services. So on the federal level, it might be answering questions about social security or immigration or HUD and housing issues, things like that. Whereas at the state level, you deal with state issues, and county, you deal with, most of the time, most of the social services come out of the county level, so you do that. But in the case of Congresswoman Waters, we did all of that. We provided constituent services. But I think what was good about the congresswoman is that she is herself an activist and has a, very much an activist orientation, and she believes not only in getting things through the halls of Congress, but out on the street, and she was very effective at that. So it was a perfect fit for me because I don't know if I could have worked for any other congressperson.

But in her case, she took a, legislatively, the issue of looking into the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s in South Central. And particularly after a book came out (called) The Dark Alliance by a guy named Gary Webb, who was a reporter, but he wrote a book about what happens, how is it that there's so much crack cocaine in South Central L.A.? Cocaine comes mostly from outside the country. And we were thinking, okay, these street gangs in South Central, they don't have airplanes, they don't have jets, they don't have ties, they don't have seed money to buy cocaine. Yet, cocaine, particularly crack cocaine, was flooding South Central L.A. And what Gary Webb did was looked at the connections between that going on in the streets, and the CIA, the U.S. CIA being involved in the cocaine industry. And I think the expose, basically, said that it's not just about Black gang members selling coke on the streets. But looking into the whole apparatus where somebody else is making a lot of money. And so... and it became clear that, for example, the cocaine there came from Nicaragua or Central America, southern Mexico, other places. They all had the fingerprints of the U.S. CIA because in the case of Nicaragua, the CIA had provided a lot of resources to people, basically in exchange for fighting off Communist influence in Central America. And so out of that experience, I think the CIA provided a lot of money, a lot of technical training and all these things. And it actually empowered and emboldened a lot of drug dealers because there was a lot of corruption at the time in Nicaragua, and there's a lot of internal strife.

And so for us, the way it was connected to working in a congressional office was that while it's a legislative agenda item to address the drug issue, drug abuse issue, it's also happening in real life, in the streets. And so we tried to find out as much as we could from primary sources, the gang members themselves and others who talked to us about what they think the connections might be. And so we pursued a lot of that, because we wanted to make, the goal is to get rid of the cocaine and drug abuse. The goal wasn't to expose the CIA but that's where it took us, so we did a lot of work around that. In fact, it was a, I think, a major factor in being able to organize a lot of young Black men. So to make the point about having that freedom to engage in things like that, and part of that is movement building, empowering community members and all of that, that we were able to do that. And then internationally, Congresswoman Waters took on issues about, you know, at that time, there was things going on with Haiti, and Papa Doc and Baby Doc and these, basically tyrants, despots in Haiti who ousted Aristide, the democratically elected president of Haiti. So we studied about Haiti and gave support to Haiti. And I mentioned earlier about South Africa, that's a big one. But other issues like that that came up, we would take up.

And in 2003, when George Bush decided to wage war on Iraq, the story was that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction," that they had nuclear power, they had all these things. And so George Bush declared a war on Iraq. I think sort of the common misperception or understanding, even among activists, is that Black people, they care about bread and butter issues, but they don't care about international issues unless it's about Africa. Well, that's not true. In 2003, the group of us in South Central L.A. were the first to hold an anti-Iraq war rally at Leimert Park, and at that park, there was two or three thousand people there. This was way before any of the so-called mainstream peace movements took up that as a struggle. So, you know, to have the freedom to do that in a congressional office is very rare, too.

<End Segment 9> - Copyright © 2023 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 10>

KU: Is there anything else you want to say as we're wrapping up, kind of, your involvement in the Black community and Black liberation related or Black civil rights related issues before we go to kind of shift our focus to Little Tokyo?

MM: I think it's important, particularly because of the U.S. educational system, where we're generally not given the opportunity to learn about ourselves, but about the Black community as well, and I think it's important for all of us to have some understanding of what the Black experience has been in this country. Because when we think about the development and the growth of this country, and people might think that it was all about the Vanderbilts and the Carnegies and the Rockefellers and Fords and all these people, and Wall Street and corporate elite and the white politicians who advanced the course of history. But it's really, we talk about the treatment of Blacks and other minority people, people of color, BIPOC, whatever the term is. That in addition to being a capitalist society where it's the rich and the poor, people versus profits. But I think the other is that the contradiction of how non-white people in this country, non-European people have been treated, mostly with indigenous people and the Black slaves. But it extends beyond that to even today. But to understand that, I think, is fundamental to being able to do whatever you do in social justice work. And I think learning about even the strategies and the approaches that people took, I think is very important for all of us who want to do good, to understand that history. And I would say the Black experience is significantly and qualitatively different from others. We don't want to compare suffering, comparing victimization, there's no quantity, quality, I mean, it's still all bad. But I think understanding the Black experience is very important.

And looking into the future, I feel that for changes in society to take place, Asian Americans and Japanese Americans cannot do that alone. We couldn't have our part in it. But I think, I cannot imagine, visualize a revolutionary or a big change taking place in society without Black people being a very critical part of it. And some Black people leading were part of the leadership of that kind of change. So whatever we do in Little Tokyo or on the UCLA campus, or we become a doctor or a teacher or become a marketing specialist, whatever we do in our lives, I think it's still very important to be curious enough to learn about the Black experience. And on that, I would say, too, that the way I got introduced to a lot of politics through the Black community, came from, first of all, reading Malcolm X's autobiography and then learning about the Panthers as I mentioned earlier, but to study the history of the South. I realized much, much later that I didn't appreciate Martin Luther King enough because I kind of jumped right into the revolutionary Black experience. But Martin Luther King is a revolutionary in his own right, and he was able to accomplish so much really in a period of thirteen years. Because he was assassinated when he was thirty-nine years old, and he led the Montgomery bus boycotts in 1955 when he was twenty-six years old. And so between the ages of twenty-six and thirty-nine, what did he do? Back then, and I think even now, there's tension between what's thought to be like a nonviolent civil rights approach as opposed to Malcolm X's more revolutionary self-defense, all of that. But I think both aspects are very important, and I think that comes up in other struggles as well. We don't have either Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, but the ideas that they represent. And to figure out, figuring out what is the right path for all of us to move forward and have an impact? I think it has to incorporate both. And this section with what I said the day before, in looking at all those things, myself, too, Asian American activists in the '60s, we got involved as students, some of them high school students, I was in college by then, college students, were young people. And I think one of the lessons, as a much older person now, I said this quote. But it's basically that, "You're never too young to lead and never too old to learn." And I think that is a very important lesson. And for some people, I think the fact that, being young is an excuse for not doing something, or that they're prevented from doing something by older people, which is often the case. But I would say to young people to give yourself permission to lead and move things forward. Try things, experiment. I mean, the social justice movement is not a science. We want it to be more organized, we want it to be more systematic, but sometimes it's not, then we move forward. And making a mistake, I think, is okay. And so I would say youth is not a detriment to taking on major issues. You don't have to be just folding papers and putting stamps on envelopes, that sort of thing.

<End Segment 10> - Copyright © 2023 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 11>

KU: Okay. So I thought we could go into your work in the Japanese American, Asian American communities, and I know that I met you in Little Tokyo in the '70s. But you had left UCLA, you graduated in 1970. So if you can maybe talk about your transition to the community, because it wasn't like an abrupt... you were from the community, you were doing work in the community, it's just that your focus of attention kind of shifted there with your work with JWRO, LTSC and LTPRO, all of that stuff. Maybe you could just paint a, start by painting just a chronology of that transition after UCLA.

MM: Okay. So I actually started going back to Little Tokyo as an adult right around 1969 because of the Ethnic Studies issue. Well, let me explain that, too. So I was on the campus of UCLA. And many of us who became activists fought for Ethnic Studies and won the right to have Asian American Studies Center along with the other three centers, and to offer an Ethnic Studies class as an experimental program. And so once we had that, said, "What do we do?" Since we didn't have professors that we could have teach the classes, we didn't have very many textbooks. So different one of us, everything that I'm talking about today, too, I just wanted to be clear that I'm talking in the first person, but I considered it's like a, more of a collective experience of a whole generational cohort of, in my case, Japanese American Sansei, third generation, and in other cases, culturally and socially we're Sansei, same as baby boomers. But so after we had Ethnic Studies, we decided we're going to back to our communities to learn more about our history since there aren't any books. And that's what we did. So in the case of Japanese Americans, many of us, not only from UCLA, but from many other places, went back to Little Tokyo and also to the Crenshaw area. And the Crenshaw area was the home base for Gidra, the publication. But in Little Tokyo, there were already people there, obviously, that were doing political and social work and social services. So we don't want to represent as if the Sansei generation of activists in the '60s invented all this.

But as we went back, we sought out people who could teach us about their immigration experience, about the work in this country. And we met a number of elders that we could talk to. And in my case, because I had some fluency in Japanese, I started working with people who were Japanese speaking. And by that time, in the history of Little Tokyo, by the '60s and '70s, most of the people who remained there as residents were monolingual seniors. Because by that time, many of the Japanese Americans' families who had reestablished themselves in Little Tokyo after World War II, they were finding other neighborhoods to move to, so there was this dispersal of people. But the older people, they had lived in this country, for many of them, like fifty, sixty years, but really not had any opportunities beyond the Japanese American community. And so we started working with them, learning from them, but also trying to address the needs that they had. And the biggest among them was they had social service needs, what sometimes is called case management. But helping people figure out what the priority problems and obstacles are to moving forward, or just to take care of just mundane things, day-to-day basis. I always give this example. I remember a lady coming with a plastic bag full of envelopes, and she would say, "I don't know what to do with this." And it was basically mail that she compiled over a months' time or something. And some of it might be advertisement from a department store, some might be renewal of the green card, some might be a social security check, but many cases, monolingual people could not understand these letters. There's no pictures, it's all English. And despite having lived here for a long time, because they were living in segregated communities, they weren't facile in English, so that's what we helped them do. That's one example.

But a Japanese Welfare Rights Organization, somehow I found in the, what was called the Sun Building, they had a lot of nonprofits providing services. And JWRO was made up of many seniors as the welfare rights name suggests, people who were limited income, formerly working class but mostly retired, and needing ways to sort of just navigate the rest of their life. And we also learned at a lot of these things that they were seeking, there were services that they were entitled to because they had paid taxes, paid into social security, all these things, but they were not accessible to non-English-speaking people. Because if they went to the county government or the city hall or to wherever, most of those places did not have Japanese-speaking people. So to earn the right to access resources that you're entitled to, they had to get translators, and that became what I did some part of the time, too, translate for people as they interacted with, sort of, government and other resources outside the community. So that's how I got involved.

But just to back up a little bit, though, I used to go to Little Tokyo as a child because my father wouldn't take me there. And this is a very common experience for immigrant children or maybe for Japanese Americans, too. But as we dispersed residentially to suburbs and other neighborhoods, we still had connections to Little Tokyo. And in my case, my dad would take me to Little Tokyo to get a haircut. There's a barber shop in the San Pedro Firm Building. It's a different barber shop now, but that's where I used to go. And on the way there from Crenshaw, we would pass other barber shops along the way but we never stopped there, my father would always take me to Little Tokyo. The reason is because, while he's getting a haircut, and I'm getting a haircut, it was a chance to talk to, conversation in Japanese with someone who was very familiar with Little Tokyo and talks to a lot of other Little Tokyo people, and so just to exchange gossip and learn about what's going on. And then after our haircuts, we would go out to eat at a restaurant and would go to a market to buy provisions for the following week. Because in those days, you had to go to Little Tokyo to get some kinds of Japanese foods. It's not like nowadays where you have Marukai and Tokyo Central, Nijiya, Mitsuwa, all these places in the surrounding communities. So that experience of kind of being able to relate to Little Tokyo as a child, I think, made it comfortable for me to be in that setting again, and this time as someone who's intentionally wanting to learn more about that neighborhood. And so that's how I got involved, and then later on, we took on Anti-Eviction Task Force and all these things.

<End Segment 11> - Copyright © 2023 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 12>

KU: Can you tell me about the, what was happening with redevelopment and how you got involved in that anti-eviction movement and the organizations? Were you in the Anti-Eviction Task Force before Little Tokyo was...

MM: Yeah. So Little Tokyo in the prewar days was a community, residential community of Japanese Americans and others. There's a marker on the corner of San Pedro and First Street, which is considered to be the main intersection of Little Tokyo. There's a marker on the ground that says -- I think it was 1934 or '35 -- about thirty thousand Japanese Americans lived within a three-mile radius of that corner. This was a huge population. But because of World War II and being evicted, taken to camps, so a certain part of, a certain portion of World War II, people said it was like a ghost town, and then became Bronzeville, which I won't get into, but it was the Black community for a short period of time. After World War II, just as the Nisei young people, they were mostly in their college or post-college years, the Nisei were. And they were beginning to have families, and they were trying to rebuild their lives and rebuild the community. But during that time, it was also a rapid expansion of the city as a whole, because after World War II, many people from all over the world, all over the country, were coming to California, and particularly in Los Angeles. And so the city government determined that they needed more facilities, buildings, for their Civic Center. Because the city services were growing, too, so what happened was, in the early '50s, the city used a tool called eminent domain to take by force -- it's kind of like a public taking of private lands -- a whole section of Little Tokyo, particularly the block between San Pedro and Main Street, all along First Street. They did eminent domain and razed, just demolished a whole block of buildings that look... I tell people today, it looked sort of like the block where Fugetsu-Do and Daikokuya and all those are, the main block, but they took that away. So redevelopment was going on, and many changes were taking place in terms of the uses for the community.

And so by just moving forward in time from the '50s on, '60s and '70s and '80s was a time when there were a number of changes taking place in Little Tokyo. And among sort of the interesting people that were coming in, I mentioned Civic Center or the local government, governmental entities were interested, but also looming was Japanese corporate money. So Japanese corporations started investing a lot in many places in the United States. At one time, I think they were buying up many hotels along Waikiki. Even in downtown L.A., hotels like Biltmore and Bonaventure were being bought by Japanese. There's a very big corporate presence in downtown L.A., including Little Tokyo. And so they became one of, they forced us to be a part of trying to rebuild it, and in their case, rebuild it in their own image. And therefore, what it meant was that they would bring in, for example, culture from Japan, or entertainers from Japan or other businesses and other things from Japan. But didn't take into account the needs of the Issei, Nisei and Sansei residents that were living there. So people started getting displaced as the buildings became dilapidated, somebody wants to develop it into something new. And so for many people who had lived there for many, many years, they're being told to move out, and in most cases, not getting any relocation benefits and not getting any replacement housing. So they're being kind of displaced and thrown into the streets, basically. So we wanted to fight for their rights. Again, that's beyond case management, beyond reading envelopes and stuff, but to really advocate for the people and saying, you can't just destroy things.

This was happening not only in Little Tokyo, but what they used to call "urban renewal." And I think it's very similar to gentrification now, but urban renewal, I mean, nobody denied the fact that old buildings have to be replaced by new buildings. But in the process, rather than to just come in as a, sort of an invading force, or kind of similar to the European settlers using this "manifest destiny" and just kind of taking over, as if there was no one there before. Little Tokyo, there were people there before, too, yet all the money interests were looking at it in terms of developing, and there were sort of obstacles, just have them move. And so we began advocating for not only their immediate needs, but also for starting to envision, what kind of community do we want Little Tokyo to be in the future? And so I don't think we did anything sophisticated like power mapping or figuring out all those things in that sense, but we could see very easily what the needs are. I mean, we need, like a community center, we need places for culture, for learning about history. And we wanted to have what we call legacy businesses or long term businesses that had done business in Little Tokyo to remain, have an opportunity to stay. But like a lot of other gentrification scenarios, people are getting squeezed out. So the Little Tokyo Anti-Eviction Task Force was, I don't remember how it got formed, you might remember. But anyway, so we started working with residents, including non-JA residents who were living in these single room occupancy hotels, SRO hotels. And from that we formed the Little Tokyo People's Rights Organization, which continued to take up the issue of evictions and the future of Little Tokyo. But also, in a way, just expanding the scope of what we did to other things which we can talk about later, but which eventually led to the redress movement as well.

KU: I never understood the... Anti-Eviction Task Force wasn't around by the time I came to Little Tokyo, and I wasn't sure what the relationship was between Anti-Eviction Task Force and LTPRO. Is it, the same people would just change the name and broaden the scope, or what catalyzed that change?

MM: Yeah. I think it's fair to say that the Anti-Eviction Task Force was a sort of predecessor to LTPRO. Maybe not perfectly or a hundred percent, but the other entities that existed at the time was the redevelopment agency, which is obviously a governmental or quasi-governmental agency funded by the government to execute plans for the redevelopment. But they had people from the community working in the redevelopment agency. But I think in terms of the Anti-Eviction Task Force, I think it was seen as maybe that in our own consciousness, we were beginning to understand that displacement and evictions is just one... it's not an isolated issue and a problem by itself. It's connected to all the needs and things that people in Little Tokyo cared about. And so I think, again, in a way, I feel that LTPRO, we don't use the word "class struggle," but there's a big class-struggle element to it where, even within the community, there's certain forces who supported Japan's corporate expansion efforts, and others who thought that Little Tokyo should be mostly for Japanese, and then so we don't want to deal with all the multiracial Little Tokyo. Which, you know, like in LTPRO we were determined not to be discriminatory in that sense, we're fighting for eviction or anti-eviction rights.

<End Segment 12> - Copyright © 2023 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 13>

KU: How would you describe your involvement in LTPRO, and what would you say were LTPRO's highest and maybe also low moments, and what contributions, and what was the significance of LTPRO?

MM: I think as with the passage of time in Little Tokyo, it's just like in any other community or society, there are different problems and obstacles that come up because we're really dealing with limited resources, limited parcels of land and all of that. Part of the work had to do with talking to people who didn't think like us, didn't agree with us, and in some cases, having more power than us and more money than us. But to really... I think LTPRO had, I think was able to put forward initially an alternative view of how redevelopment can proceed. But over time, I think it became more embraced by larger sections of the community because I think people understood that we were advocating for people's human rights and right to dignity and live safely and all those things, and people can't argue against that. But I think oftentimes, it might have been our tactics, our strident advocacy, things like that that maybe put off some of the Nisei. But I don't think that we were ever seen as a negative force, I think, a positive force that they had to understand, that we had to understand. And I would say that, as young people, there were probably many confrontations that we started that didn't need to happen, or some sectarianism, some dismissal of other people's, other strata of ideas. But all along I think many of us who grew up during that period, we can be proud of the work, and we have relationships with those people that maybe we got into beefs with, but they're still around, we're still around, and we're just moving forward. But I think again, being able to work with all those different kind of groups, like they strengthened LTPRO and Little Tokyo community as well.

KU: You know, LTPRO produced a lot of activists who continued the work, like, over the next thirty, forty years in the community, and that's, I think, pretty significant. Can you talk a little bit about some of the people and organizations that grew out of that fight against redevelopment and kind of the lasting legacies?

MM: Yeah. I think here in 2023, I'm seventy-six years old, will be soon, and I'm involved still, and all my friends are. And the organization that many of us work in now is called Nikkei Progressives. Nikkei means "Japanese American," and Progressives. And I could even say that we trace our roots to the LTPRO days and the Anti-Eviction Task Force days, through a large portion where we had the redress movement. But I think many of us became politically aware through those kinds of struggles. And I think the influence of LTPRO was that even within LTPRO, but even after we decided that that wasn't the priority organization, the issues that we took up then, I think we were faithful to them even if the organization didn't exist. What I mean by that is, for example, the idea, concept of multinational, multiracial unity, supporting each other. Because, again, it's clear to us that Little Tokyo doesn't exist in a bubble. There's Chinatown, there's Koreatown, there's Thaitown, the Chicano community, East L.A., Boyle Heights, South Central, Watts, Leimert, all of these things are going on. And so we did want to, and we learned a lot about those communities and sometimes from each other about what to do. And I think that was good for us, because I think that's part of what sustained us, to be able to feel like we're not all, individually or as a community, that we were part of a larger picture of things and changes in society.

So between LTPRO in the '70s and '80s and Nikkei Progressives now, there are a lot of things that happened. But one of them that I was involved in was, as an LTPRO and JWRO member, I started working with a group of people that Nisei and other people who were Little Tokyo stakeholders to look at, okay, what exists now, the most efficient way to provide services to the people in Little Tokyo. And we found out, okay, in some cases, a senior would have to go to this office to get a bus token, that office to go get a social security check, another office to get something else, another place to get nutrition. So the idea of Little Tokyo Service Center, that LTPRO, JWRO and other groups started, was to have one place where a senior can go and get all those services that they required, and not have to go from place to place. Little Tokyo Service Center is a funded organization today that provides social services and builds affordable housing, been doing that for about maybe close to three decades. But I would say that that sort of institution or nonprofit agency has its roots in LTPRO and other grassroots efforts at that time, too. Which addresses two major things, social services and affordable housing.

And then another trend was all during that time, we were learning about the impact of camps on Japanese Americans, particularly people who were adults at the time of the incarceration, and the psychological, I would say, damage, psychological impact that that experience had. And people not talking about it, our Sansei generation not learning about it, and I think little by little, there were people who came before us who were working on it. But really, looking at the concentration camp experience, and looking at the impact of it. And one of the threads in that movement led to the redress and reparations movement to seek out an apology and monetary compensation for people who were taken away. So those were three major things that connect to LTPRO.

<End Segment 13> - Copyright © 2023 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 14>

KU: Can you take me back a little bit briefly, anyway, to the Sun Building where a lot of that organizing took place? It was the Sun Building, the Sun Hotel, those were some of the, kind of, places where people really took a physical stand to resist evictions.

MM: Well, the Sun Building was a three-story un-reinforced brick building, it was an old building. But within it, many of the nonprofits like JWRO and there was another entity that was started by movement folks, called it AI...

KU: Asian Involvement?

MM: Hmm? Why am I blanking? I do this a lot now. Anyway, there was a group that was started that provided services, JACS-AI, so it was Japanese American Community Services, that was money that they traced there was to, like, I think a Japanese orphanage that existed many, many years ago. But anyway, so JACS-AI and other nonprofits were in the Sun Building. Small, grassroots cultural instructors that taught calligraphy or flower arrangements or odori, dance, different kinds of things also were in that building. And I believe there were residential tenants in that building, too. So this is a building within Little Tokyo which is now in the footprint of a shopping plaza called Weller Court. And I think there are many other brick buildings that I remember from that time. But here there's a concentration of both activists and residents and cultural instructors who got red tagged, got an eviction notice saying they had to move out. And so there, I think we decided we would take a stand and defend it and make sure that we didn't get evicted. And until there were certain conditions that were met, like relocation benefits, replacement facility and those things. So there's kind of a famous picture now that there were a number of us, maybe ten of us, that are standing in front of this building with picket signs and things. Because what we were trying to do was like a last ditch effort to prevent evictions after eviction notices were given. And we had learned that there were going to be marshals coming to evict people physically. So we set up this kind of blockade. There's not much more story to tell behind that, because we didn't get arrested, whatever, and eventually we had to move. But I think even doing something like that was, in a way, sort of contrary to how Japanese people would handle things, many people thought. But I think, in the end, now it's a very important part of Japanese American history. I mean, if you go to the museum, you go to a study center, it's part of the history of Asian Americans, history of Japanese Americans in Little Tokyo.

KU: I mean, it wasn't able to stop redevelopment, but I think there were other things, other benefits that came out of it, too. So how did... why and when did people in LTPRO -- oh, can you talk a little bit about the relationship between LTPRO and some of the Bay Area organizations that were also fighting evictions at the same time?

MM: Again, I keep backing up, but when Japanese began migrating to California in the 1880s in larger numbers, they settled in many places throughout California including small towns in the Central Valley like Bakersfield, Stockton, Fresno, Sacramento, all these places. Because they came here to work the farms and all of that. So at one point, there were Japanese American communities or Japantowns that existed, some say about forty, others maybe number even higher, closer to eighty. But there were many Japantowns dotting the landscape of California from San Diego, Santa Barbara, all over. Today, I think most people consider, there are only three, I'd say four... and I'll say four for UCLA's sake, too, but most people acknowledge that, they agree that Little Tokyo, San Francisco Japantown, San Jose Japantown, are historic Japanese communities, and recognized as such. I include Sawtelle, there were people in Sawtelle who were consciously working on making it sustainable. So now we only have four, not eighty or forty or whatever it was. So I think the challenge for us is to look at the last remaining three and see how do we retain the benefits or the most positive aspects of the history of Japanese Americans in this area, and also take into account the development of the future for any group of people who want to relate to Little Tokyo. And I missed the point about, what was the question again?

KU: How did the organizing, how was organizing influenced by some of the organizing elsewhere, like in San Francisco?

MM: Oh yeah, okay, I'm sorry. So anyway, yeah, so today, we have four Japantowns remaining. I think in the 1960s and '70s when urban renewal was happening to many central city areas, which all three of these Japantowns were in, well, we took up the task of maintaining Little Tokyo in Southern California. There were other groups similar to us, many of them were activists that came off of campuses in other areas, too, but who were working on similar issues. And for example, in San Francisco, there was a group called, for the longest time, it was called CANE, Committee Against Nihonmachi Eviction. But so they're doing their thing in San Francisco, we're doing ours in L.A. But we had similar issues, and we had some correspondence and friendships and other things that developed over time. And so we had exchanges, and we would have meetings between the organizations, particularly with LTPRO and CANE. And so eventually we got to a point where we organizationally decided to put out one newspaper and had some coordination among the group. So I think that experience, I think, really helped us to kickstart the national efforts that was required for the redress campaign.

<End Segment 14> - Copyright © 2023 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 15>

KU: Maybe we could shift into the redress campaign and how that came about. Because there were multiple organizations involved in that.

MM: Right. You know, I think you probably have already, and probably will be interviewing a few more people who can talk more in depth about the redress issues. But I think in L.A., particularly for Little Tokyo, by the time that we sort of shifted into the redress campaign, a lot of the redevelopment and the changes that were taking place in Little Tokyo were being, sort of, consummated, being completed. So the Kajima building that they put up, the Little Tokyo Towers that the community wanted, that got put up, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, as a place for cultural instructors to work, all of those things were almost at the end of the redevelopment phase of Little Tokyo. No, there weren't evictions or mass evictions taking place. And prior to people in LTPRO becoming involved, this is a... I don't know how to explain it, but it's a very symbiotic relationship between people who were studying Asian American history, and writing about it, researching, people who were already living there who were maybe Nisei age or older Sansei who were exploring various issues about, maybe not redress, but other things about how do we capture and how do we explain this experience of Japanese Americans? Because on the one hand, it's very much in keeping with the racist history of this country, but on the other hand, it's a very unique experience at the time, and it's something that really generated interest among all generations of people. So there are Nisei activists, Japanese American Citizens League, a few elected officials that we had who were working on the issue, but also, there were a lot of Sanseis who were intrigued by it, wanted to do something about it, angered by it, by learning about the experience and really want to advocate for it. So that's how we kind of... it was both conscious and a natural transition. And so I think in 1980 we had a founding conference and became the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations that had chapters in various cities. Because we knew that this campaign was going to be a long term issue that required a national effort. It wasn't just about L.A. So taking the modest infrastructure that we had, we pulled ourselves together and started working on the redress issue.

<End Segment 15> - Copyright © 2023 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 16>

KU: So there was a more stable infrastructure that NCRR built. I had mentioned that a turning point in your shift to the Little Tokyo community was the book that you published, that you put together the Little Tokyo: One Hundred Years in Pictures. Can you tell me about the genesis of the book and how it affected you in terms of working on that?

MM: Okay, yeah. You know, very few people know about this story, but most people think of Little Tokyo's founding as 1884 when a small restaurant by a guy named Kame was started, Japanese restaurant, in 1884. And because it's not, it's just a neighborhood, it's not a city or anything, so we're not incorporated, so there's no definitive thing that says we got incorporated, founded in a particular year, but it was in 1884. So 1984 would have been the centennial, the 100th year. You know, I personally had not been thinking about any celebrations or anything like that, but Little Tokyo Business Association at the time, there was a woman named Frances Hashimoto, who's passed away but who was a leader in that group, Little Tokyo Business Association, they wanted to create a commemorative piece to be marketed. And so during the centennial year in 1984, so in 1983, they asked, I think they talked to Visual Communications about producing some materials. But I guess someone else, I mean, I don't know who determined it, but somebody settled on having a book, history book. And I was not in that conversation that early, but I guess my name came up because I had some history in Little Tokyo. And I was fairly bilingual in terms of, I can't read or write, but I can interview Issei about... because we're talking about history, so to have a first-person experience. So they approached me and they said, "Can you do this?" And so I spent eleven months, collected about fifty thousand images from various archives, the Rafu Shimpo, the newspaper, and family collections, and then went through all of those. And then although I am not a historian, I read up more. I had taught ethnic studies, so I had some background. But I studied more about the history, and then I went about interviewing people in Little Tokyo and put together that book in about eleven months. During that process, I think my own understanding of Little Tokyo's history obviously grew tremendously, and also my relationship to, for example, people like Archie Miyatake, who was the second generation of Toyo Miyatake, the most renowned professional photographers. And to Harry Honda, the editor of the Pacific Citizen, Kats Kunitsugu, who also worked for the Pacific Citizen and the Rafu Shimpo. And so I met all these people who gave me more perspective about what Little Tokyo is about beyond what I learned in LTPRO. So I was able to incorporate all that. And so the book got published, and if you are around in 2084, I think, there's a time capsule in the JACCC that's going to be opened. Because I think it's supposed to be a hundred year capsule. But my book is in that capsule, but I won't be able to see it. I lost track again.

KU: You said it was kind of a pivotal moment for you in shifting your attention to Little Tokyo?

MM: Well, pivotal in the sense that, like we were all moving from LTPRO to... 1981 was the Commission hearings and in probably '83 there was a lot of work being done around the redress movement. But pivotal in the sense that I moved from that to start working on the Jesse Jackson campaign and working primarily with African Americans. And so by that time I had become the president of the board for Little Tokyo Service Center, which I talked about earlier, it's the social service center that started in 1980. So I was spending day and night in Little Tokyo, but when the Jackson campaign came up, I switched my focus. That's also a pivotal year for me personally (1983) because that's the year that I got married to June Hibino.

KU: And do you want to say anything about that? How that romance...

MM: Well, I mean, this probably happened more often than people realize, but June and I met through our interest in activism in the community. Because she was a Berkeley grad and working in the San Francisco Japantown, and sort of the developing relationship with the organizations, and coincided with the time when June and I met. And you know, there are people that, I mean, life's events continue to happen for activists. I mean, we get married, we get divorced, we have children, whatever. And that happened for a lot of people.

KU: But you didn't get divorced from June.

MM: No.

KU: It's been a long time.

MM: And I would say, too, I think sometimes, like even in oral history, too, like I think the personalities that stand out are maybe more men who tend to be more vocal or whatever. But I think not only with June, who actually has played a leading role in many, many things, but not the kind of role where she would be spotlighted. I mean, we have people who were good at public speaking or leading chants at marches and things, vocal, that stand out more. But June and many other women contribute so much in so many ways. And if you look at a lot of these volunteer organizations, their membership is largely women, their leadership is largely women. That point should not be lost, that women hold up more than half the sky.

KU: Do you want to name some of these women?

MM: Okay, well, in the Gidra days, I mean, Evelyn Yoshimura played a critical role, I would say, the last four years of the publication. She contributed to other things in the movement. But now we're talking about, like, Kathy Masaoka and Miya Iwataki, Kay Ochi, there were a number of women who played important roles in the redress movement. You remember Lillian Nakano who very typically played a, took a backseat in a public setting, but she was a very important thinker and played a very important role. We have, if you look at the, what you might call arts and activist world, a lot of them call themselves "artivist." But in our community we have people like Nobuko Miyamoto, we have, like, traci kato-kiriyama, and a number of other people who do poetry, Amy Uyematsu is another. None of them, you would think would stand out maybe as the preeminent activist role model, but they have longevity, they've contributed so much that people don't realize. And I think they're really jewels in the community.

KU: And not just Japanese American, people like Linda Mabalot. After you had turned your attention to the Jesse Jackson campaign and did your work for fourteen years with Maxine Waters, you actually became the Director of Service Programs at Little Tokyo Service Center and spend fourteen years, the last fourteen years?

MM: Fifteen, yeah.

KU: Fifteen years of your career at LTSC.

<End Segment 16> - Copyright © 2023 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 17>

KU: Can you just say what you think are some of the most important memories you'd like to share or accomplishments personally and of the organization during that time you were there?

MM: Okay. In my transition from Congresswoman Maxine Waters' office and working mainly in the Black community, I think it was just the right time for me, right time for LTSC, but I decided to go back to Little Tokyo and worked there for, this time as a staffperson, working there full time. And what happened was that LTSC, which was founded in 1980 doing social services, and over a period of time, they had started taking on what was called Community Economic Development, or becoming nonprofit developers building not only residential housing, but whatever resources that were needed in the community. So that was being done by two separate entities, both under the umbrella of LTSC, Little Tokyo Service Center. So they had merged in 2003 after a period of that, being two organizations. And so on the merger process, you took a social service component, it's mostly women, mostly Japanese immigrants who spoke Japanese. I'm kind of simplifying this, but on the other side, the community Economic Development Component had mostly Americanized Sansei and other Asian American men, spoke English. Very different skill sets, different outlook, different culture, different communication style, and so they were having some growing pains. And so Bill and others asked me to come, and because I spoke Japanese, I could maybe be a bridge. So that was one explanation. I mean, I don't want to make it sound like it was such an important thing. And for me, after working for Councilwoman Waters for that many years, we were both ready to create a little distance between us. [Laughs] But like even today, I still work with Councilwoman Waters and support her and stuff. But my day to day existence kind of shifted dramatically when I went back to LTSC. And I would say I'm really glad that I did because I learned so much from both components and from everything that happened at LTSC. I think Bill and Erich and Dean and others, Yasuko, who was there before me, they did a really good job of building up the Little Tokyo Service Center between, in the time that I was gone. And so I was thankful that I found a place there. I guess I always feel like I was trying to contribute my skills and whatever I had to offer to a group of people who were social workers who I could never be. But trying to help them, sort of, organize things. So I was kind of like an administrator working mostly internally with the social workers. So I really feel, like I keep saying, I really feel a lot of gratitude about that experience. I learned so much that I don't know if you can articulate what they were.

And somewhere along that time, probably after 2012, 2013, I had been peripherally working on building this rec center through LTSC. So because there was a tremendous interest in having a community recreation center or sports center, so LTSC had committed to building something like that. But when Bill retired, there was a little bit of a leadership gap, and just lacking in resources. So even though I was full time in social services, I think it was Dean and Erich asked me, would I consider leading that effort? And so I shifted to fundraising and community outreach and conceptualizing the whole campaign to raise thirty-four million dollars. So I played a role in that. And again, it's really a gratifying thing in a different sense because unlike social service, we don't visibly see changes in people day to day or how your help impacted anybody. But with the recreational center, it's called Budokan, and it's a building, and it's there. You could see people walking through the door enjoying themselves, little kids playing basketball, older people playing ping pong or doing yoga. And it's modeled as "a home court for all," and it's a very inclusive space. And we have programming where people from Skid Row come to do that. So the overall experience, I feel like whatever I was able to contribute, it pales in comparison to what I got out of it.

KU: Are there any last words you have about this whole period of time beyond your work, your whole career?

MM: I'll probably think of things on the way home, on the 405. [Laughs] No, I don't think so.

KU: I think that's a wrap. Thank you very much.

<End Segment 17> - Copyright © 2023 Densho. All Rights Reserved.