“You’re Not Colored”: The Story of Two Civil Rights Activists of Japanese Descent

We heard about Ed Nakawatase and Tamio Wakayama's experiences as volunteers with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the American civil rights movement, and the extraordinariness of their witness to the history happening at the time compelled us to pursue a conversation.

A historical photo of a burned cross with the word "Freedom" in white across it.
A burned freedom cross at Indianola freedom house. Photo by and courtesy of Tamio Wakayama

This interview appears in the Fall 2017 edition of Shelterforce magazine. Subscribe here.

Shelterforce staff met Ed Nakawatase and Tamio Wakayama when the two were the guests of honor at an event held during National CAPACD’s annual conference in 2015. One theme at the conference that year was the Asian American Pacific Islander community’s support of the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, and how remaining unwavering in that support would ultimately make the social justice movement for all marginalized communities stronger. We heard about the two men’s experiences as volunteers with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the American civil rights movement, and the extraordinariness of their witness to the history happening at the time compelled us to pursue a conversation. Their experiences highlight the pervasiveness of Western xenophobia and racism, and how its underlying threat of violence affected two communities of color differently. 

Keli Tianga: Looking back to your childhoods, were there experiences you can connect to your decisions to leave home, and ultimately become members of SNCC?

Tamio Wakayama
Tamio Wakayama. Photo credit: Lloyd Wolf, 2016.

Tamio Wakayama: I’m a Nikkei, a Japanese-Canadian, born to parents who had emigrated from Japan in [the] 1930s. I was born in 1941, about nine months before the outbreak of the Pacific War with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My family had bought property in the Fraser Valley, now the outskirts of Vancouver. My father, who had come first, had brought over all the family, a set of grandparents and aunts and uncles, and they were well on their way toward a good life when the bombs went off and the shit hit the fan.

We were swept up in the roundup of some 22,000 Japanese-Canadians living on the coast. We were herded into cattle stalls, and stuck for a month or two before [the Canadian government] hastily erected camps in the interior of British Columbia.

Americans are very surprised when they learn that Canada undertook the same draconian measures as America [against] its Japanese-American citizens. In a lot of cases, the Canadian experience was much worse in that we were [not] allowed to return to our homes until 1949. We weren’t allowed to vote until then, nor were we allowed to participate as combat soldiers in the second World War, unlike the Japanese-Americans and their legendary 442nd Combat Unit, the most highly decorated unit in American history.

[Related: Get Back the Vote]

After the war, we were given two choices—either relocate [East] of the Rockies or accept what they called “repatriation” to Japan. They wanted to solve the “yellow peril” problem once and for all. So they said, “If you want to keep your family together, you should sign up for repatriation to Japan,” and some 7,000 Japanese-Canadians suffered exile to Japan before a concerted effort by church groups and civil libertarian groups in Canada managed to force Parliament to rescind those orders.

My family thankfully decided that they’d remain in the country, and so we settled in the small farming community of Chatham, Ontario. Growing up in Chatham was an experience that was in many ways devastating because we [were] isolated and still bore the brand of “enemy alien,” the official designation by the Canadian government.

Media of the day portrayed us as this inhuman, treacherous, physically repulsive force, so that was [the] self-image I had to combat. There [were] times when you had to fight your way to and from school. In my final year of university, I fell in love, [but she] wanted nothing to do with it, and this totally devastated me. So, in a desperate leap, I jumped into my Volkswagen that I borrowed $800 from my mother to buy, went South, and miraculously became part of one of the most luminous and transformative moments in American life.

Ed Nakawatase
Ed Nakawatase. Photo credit: Lloyd Wolf, 2016.

Ed Nakawatase: My parents met in the camps in Poston, Arizona. My father came to the United States in 1929.

My grandfather was a sort of itinerant farmer, based in the Imperial Valley in California. My grandfather was picked up by the FBI [after] the bombing of Pearl Harbor, within a day or two. The agents came to the field where he was working and told him that he needed to pack a suitcase, which my grandmother did. There were no other details. He was then incarcerated in Fort Lincoln in North Dakota, and there was no contact with him at all until later in 1942 after my family was interned in Poston, Arizona.

My parents married and had me in the camp. My family then moved from Poston before the camps were closed and before the war ended, to Wilson, Arkansas, which has been described as both a company town and a plantation. It’s in the Delta area of Arkansas, in Mississippi County. My surmise is that they were offered jobs that [were] akin to sharecropping. Around late 1946, [my] family moved to Seabrook, New Jersey [which] was assiduously getting Japanese-Americans to work in Seabrook Farms, a frozen food plant. There were, at its peak, about 2,500 people of Japanese descent in Seabrook [which] I think made it one of the most densely-populated concentrations of Japanese-Americans in the United States. Seabrook is where I grew up.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Did either of your families talk about incarceration? Did you hear from adults in your community about what happened and the politics behind it, as well as the experience?

Nakawatase: What was described [was] the condition and the types of places they lived. There was no illusion about what it was, but there was no extended outrage or anger. It was that we endured. ‘”We went through this, it’s over, and we’re here now,” was the way it was put. There was no extended treatise on American racism, or injustice. The perspective and the resulting anger I think [has] built over time, but in the ’50s and ’60s, there was little discussion about it at all.

My parents and all the other parents, they’d lived through the dislocation of the war and the internment camps and the relocation, and the Depression before that. I think there was a very strong push to be as normal as possible. That’s the way I [and] everybody else I knew was raised. You smooth down the edges, you didn’t make waves.

Axel-Lute: Ed, what prompted you to head South?

Nakawatase: Growing up, I had some consciousness about what was going on in the South, but it was fairly abstract. I didn’t quite make the connection between [that and] the fact that my family and all the other families that I knew had been incarcerated, essentially, because of their race. I read all about it—the Montgomery bus boycott, the murder of Emmett Till, efforts to desegregate schools in the South, and then a sit-in movement, and then the Freedom Ride. There was this kind of visceral reaction to it.

By the time I was in the midst of my first year in college, [in] ’62, ’63, I really began to feel that this was something I wanted to be a part of. I [had] just turned 20 when I went South. It was that simple and that crazy. I remember watching on television an interview with Jim Forman, and he really raised the ante. He [was] basically saying that if need be, [he’d be] killed. It made me think, “Wow, these guys are something.”

So, I showed up on campus at Rutgers and just said, “I’m leaving,” and I left, and that was it. I hopped a bus from Bridgeton, New Jersey, rode for about 24 hours [and] wound up in Atlanta—completely unconnected with anybody who worked there, no resume, no clear qualifications for anything. I basically went to the [SNCC] office and spoke about working for the organization.

There were two crazy elements here. One was me. But, the other crazy thing is they basically said, “OK.” I mean, think about it: There was no phone contact. I had not written a thing. There was no sense that I was qualified to do anything. I just had my hopes and dreams, and I showed up and had a nice conversation with Worth Long and Ruby Doris Robinson. A sensible response on their part would have been, “Kid, get the hell out of here,” but they didn’t do that. Within about a month or so, I was a regular person in the office. And the rest for me is history.

Wakayama: I remember one day I turned on the TV, and there was this sit-in demonstration in [and] a group of seven or eight Black students, very serious, very somber, dressed in shirt and tie, and they walked into this forbidden lunch counter and sat down. They were very calm, and they remained calm even when Cokes and raw eggs were splattered over their heads, and when they were thrown to the ground, they just went into their defensive posture. And when the violence abated, they just calmly stood up and retook their seats. This totally blew me away.

At the end of that summer came the March on Washington. The one speech that really stuck with me was the young leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis. I could identify with him, because here was this kid who was a student just like me, about my age. He didn’t have the smooth diction and the great, mellifluous speech of King and others, but there was an incredible sense of passion and reality to him. That stuck in my head.

At the end of the summer, I said to my mother, “I’m just going to take a short vacation to the South before returning and finishing my final year of university.” And I didn’t see her for about a year or two. I knew no one, I just had this kind of inchoate idea that perhaps within this Black struggle for freedom that I could somehow find the matrix of my own liberation. So I drove south.

I landed in Nashville, Tennessee, and the car radio was interrupted by this flash news bulletin [that] in Birmingham, Alabama, a bomb had exploded in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church, and four young girls were known to have died.

So I turned around and headed for Birmingham. As I drove, this Jeep came careening around the corner. It was filled with grim-looking soldiers in total battle dress with helmets. The Jeep looked like a steel picket fence with the profusion of bayonets. Mine was about the only vehicle on the street [and] there was nobody on the sidewalks. All the stores and theaters were locked up.

I found one place that was open, and pulled in behind this pickup truck emblazoned with Dixie flags and banners and bumper stickers saying, ‘Keep America White.’ I took a seat, and there were about four or five Black men sitting around, and they looked at me. I had my pack of Red Canadian DuMauriers on the counter, and this young Black kid was staring at them. I said, “Oh, they’re Canadian cigarettes. They’re really different from yours, so here, try one, see if you like it.” That broke the ice, and then the owner came over, and he asked me what I was doing. I said I was interested in what was happening with the civil rights movement. And so, [for] the next half hour, he told me what it was like to be Black in the South, and it was this horrendous, terrifying story where a Black man could wake up in the morning and not know whether he would just have to go through the daily humiliations of being Black, or whether he would have to face the ultimate terror and horror of being lynched.

At the end, he said, “Well, we thank you for coming down here, but I think you should get back in your little car and turn around and go back home. And when you get there, you tell all your people there that what they’ve been seeing on the TV and on the radio and on the newspapers, that all the beatings and all the jailing, and them dogs and them fire hoses, it’s all very real, and it is happening every day. But that truck you parked behind belongs to the Klan, they’re keeping an eye on us since we’re about the only place open to this night. And when you leave, they might be wondering, well, who’s that boy hanging out with all them ni**, and they might stop you on the way out, and God knows what could happen.”

During that conversation, I gleaned that all the civil rights people flooding into the city would be meeting at the AG Gaston Motel. So the next morning I went over there. AG Gaston was one of the few Black millionaires in the South at this point, and his motel was kind of the de facto headquarters of the movement, along with a lot of the churches.

So, I walked into the lobby, and it was filled with movement people, most of them Black, and a lot of them were the dungaree-clad workers, young people [with] SNCC. I spotted John Lewis, and went over and said, “Mr. Lewis, I was so impressed with your speech.” We talked for a long while. This guy was tremendously giving and [had] this real gentle quality to him that I immediately glommed onto. He introduced me to Julian Bond and some of the other people, and said, “You might want to come over and visit us at SNCC headquarters in Atlanta.”

At that point, Annie Pearl Avery, who was this young civil rights worker, said, “You should just sleep here,” so, I hung out for the remainder of my stay in Birmingham, and Annie Pearl and I [went] to the memorial service for three of the children that were killed in the bombing. The fourth child was going to have a private ceremony just with her family.

I was driving and [got] lost. And I said, “Annie Pearl where the hell are we?” We were in this ritzy section of Birmingham. And I looked over and Annie Pearl had crunched under the dash of the car. I said, “Annie Pearl, what the hell are you doing down there?” She says, “We in whitey territory now, and [if] they catch my Black ass in here with you, we’re going to be in a whole lot of trouble, so get us out of here.” I floored it, and we got to the church.

After [the service], I said, “I’m going to Atlanta to visit SNCC headquarters, and I’d gladly offer rides to anybody who wants to go.” So, driving to Atlanta, I had James Forman, the executive secretary of SNCC; Julian Bond, the communications director; and [photographer] Danny Lyon.

So, [we arrived] in Atlanta in the late evening, and Forman said, “You could stay in the Freedom House, but would you mind cleaning up and emptying out the garbage?” I said sure, and after, I said, “Could I drive you home?” So, I drove him to his home. Forman was this very imposing figure, a big man who had an arsenal of sneers and snorts and sighs that could be totally intimidating. He looked over at me and [asked], “You one of them humanitarians?” I said, “No, I’m a Sokuseki Buddhist,” which immediately confounded him. There was a silence for the rest of the way. And I just made that up [Note: sokuseki means “instant” in Japanese].

So, that’s how I became part of SNCC.

Americans are very surprised when they learn that Canada undertook the same draconian measures as America did against its Japanese-American citizens.

 

Tianga: Did either of you witness or experience violence?

Nakawatase: I wound up in jail over Christmas in 1963 with a group of SNCC [members]. It was a mixed group of women, both Black and white, and of men, all Black except me, and one of them was John Lewis. We had gone to a Huddle House, which was a greasy spoon in the Atlanta area, and got picked up, arrested, and jailed for criminal trespass. I was being arraigned, I was telling the [officers] I want to go in with those guys, meaning [the] Black SNCC people, as opposed to being in some jail by myself. And [there] was just incredible bewilderment. The guy looks at me, and says—I’m paraphrasing—“You’re not colored,” meaning I’m not Black, “so, [you’re] white.” So he put me in the white city jail for a couple days, and then three days in the county jail.

I had the edifying experience of being with a bunch of drunks in the city jail [the] first two nights. Then there was another guy from SNCC, a white guy named Sam Shirah, got picked up and he and I were in county jail together. We were in there with some wife beaters and guys who bounced checks, and there was a whole range of felonies there. Once they found out that we were in there for criminal trespass, I think they figured what that was, [and] it got a little cool there. If we’d stayed in there for just another day, I suspect we would have gotten beaten up.

There was a July 4th event at the fairgrounds outside of Atlanta, a huge gathering of segregationists—their featured speakers were George Wallace and Lester Maddox. I don’t exactly know what possessed me, but I went there with two or three other SNCC people and tried to be as invisible as possible to check out these guys ranting about the virtues of segregation and the ominous horrors that were going to be laid upon them by the federal government and these race-mixers. And then, a couple of my SNCC colleagues were assaulted. The guys picked up folding chairs and ran after them, and it was mean and nasty.

Wakayama: Prior to the big Freedom Summer ’64 program in which we were going to get 1,000 students from the north and other parts [to] come down and man projects in Mississippi, there was this orientation program for the staff in Tougaloo College, just outside of Jackson. On Sunday, one of the last speakers was Reverend Ed King, a white Mississippian and a pastor and lecturer [at] Tougaloo. He was a veteran of the civil rights movement, and so was considered a traitor to his race [and] had risen to the top of the hit list [of] the Ku Klux Klan.

Rev. King was telling us about one night he was driving out of the campus, [which] back then was in a remote farm area outside of Jackson, [and] this pickup truck slammed in front of him, and another one came behind, and he was blocked off. He realize[s] it’s the Klan, and was just resigning himself to meeting his death.

[Rev. King] was [driving] a couple professors from the University of Delhi who were guests of Tougaloo back to their hotel in Jackson. This voice popped up and said, “Pardon me, but I am a guest lecturer and a guest of your state department. If any harm is done to me or to my colleagues, my government will immediately launch a[n] official protest with your government, and they will be forced to hunt you down and to bring you to justice.” They said, “Oh, shut your mouth, rag-head.” And then, finally, one voice said, “Wait a minute now, that man may have something.” So, that voice of reason, or cowardice, depending on your point of view, won out, and Rev. King and his party were allowed to continue on to Jackson.

My job as a photographer was to stay clear, get the images, and come back with camera and me intact. I roamed around Mississippi for two, three months after the Freedom Summer ended, and it was one of my most creative times in the South. The violence there is like an undercurrent—as ominous and oppressive as the heat and humidity. If you’re going to get freaked out by the violence, you couldn’t function, so you kind of compartmentalize it. But I was always worried that somewhere along the line, I would get stopped by the Klan or whomever, and I would say, “I’m a student newspaper correspondent doing a series on the movement,” and they [would say] “That’s all well and good, but what are you doing staying with the sharecroppers in the Freedom House?” And I would have no answer for that. Fortunately, that never happened.

When Ed and I went to the Freedom Summer Reunion, we stopped off at the church where they were having this ceremony to honor the local people. We said to them, ”You guys were the real heroes because we who came in always had our own reality to go back to. We could always escape. But, you could lose your job, you could lose your homes, you could be bombed, you could be jailed, you could be killed, and yet you persisted in the movement. So, we’re here to honor you.”

Tianga: Ed, you’d said in your remarks at the CAPACD event that you had kind of a positive attitude about the eventual success of the movement for equal justice in this country, and your reason for that was experiential. Tell us more.

Nakawatase: There was probably no group of people in the United States that were really more disparaged and despised, really, than southern Blacks. I mean, if you can think of negative stereotypes, southern Black people had all of them. So, given that as a starter, then you had this great movement, which essentially said these are people who are capable of governing themselves and making decisions about what’s important to them. And they did. They organized themselves, and they changed the country. And in the process, they changed the perception of what Black people were, I mean, to non-Black people. And I think to a lot of Black people too, actually.

I mean, it didn’t yet transform the economic structures of this nation, but they put the lie to the [idea] that there are certain things that had to be in place before you could govern yourself. Whatever kinds of struggles happen afterwards, and whatever defeats are experienced, and there are plenty of them—probably more defeats than victories, really—the point is those of us who were there, we know that you can change things in a very fundamental way, because we’ve seen it.

Wakayama: [Trump is] hopefully the last gasp of systemic racism in your country. I believe he speaks to that portion of your country which still clings to that sense of entitlement, that sense of white is powerful, it’s the ultimate expression of all that is good, because it was something that I had growing up, and that was something that I had to deal with and had to overcome in some sense.

Nakawatase: I don’t know how many times I’ve heard younger people say, “Well, nothing’s changed.” And my kind of visceral response is, “Oh, you punk, yes, things have changed.” I mean, they haven’t changed enough, and they haven’t changed quickly enough, and they’re not as sweeping as they need to be. But, you can’t tell me that there isn’t a difference between now and 1950, or 1925. I mean, certainly, if you’re a person of color, it’s different. If you’re a woman, it’s different. So, the struggle matters.

Tianga: Do either of you have any advice that you’d like to give to groups working with a place-based approach to community development and organizing?

Wakayama: I think it’s great there’s this coalition building, and that [National CAPACD] conference encompassed incredible range of groups all across the country, and yet their basic aim and their basic modus operandi was the same, to give voice to people that lacked voice, that lacked power, and to give them the tools and the means to achieve that, which was, as I said to the conference, essentially what we were doing in SNCC back in the ’60s. The only advice is keep on keeping on.

Nakawatase: For me, one of the salient lessons of the SNCC experience was that, ultimately, the communities have to address their needs, and that the strategy of working where you live and with the people with whom you live was crucial. [The] people [who] have to change Mississippi, are people in Mississippi, and [same for] rural Georgia, and Birmingham, and all these other places.

Thank you.

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