Asian American Movement 101: The Beginning of the Movement

Los Angeles Asian Women's Group (1972) courtesy of Merilynne Hamano Quon

(with apolgies to Kim Geron, from whom many of these thoughts were adopted)

In 1968 the contemporary Asian American Movement (AAM)* began in different locations almost simultaneously on campuses across the country as young Asian Americans were galvanized by the movement to build Asian American studies programs on college campuses. They were part of efforts by students of color to construct programs of study that were relevant to them including accurate histories and depictions of people of color. At the same time as the Asian student movement, there were already many Asians Americans involved in various campaigns and struggles in their own communities, workplaces, and as participants in national and international campaigns for justice. However, in most cases, these efforts were individualized or involved small groups of Asians acting as part of large mass movements.


The new generation of Asian Americans on college campuses also were active in support of the emerging Black, Brown and Red power movements in this country, the movement to unionize Mexicano and Filipinos farm workers, and the international anti-Vietnam war movement. Through the consistent efforts of community and labor activists and the new generation of Asian Americans, a new social movement was forged in the U.S. - The Asian American Movement (AAM). The AAM was not just about ethnic awakening and identity. It was also the idea that Asian Americans became active participants in the making of history, as Glenn Omatsu of UCLA says, that "activists saw history as created by large numbers of people, not by elites," and that political power grows from grassroots organizing, from the bottom up, not top down. "Further, this new understanding challenged activist to build mass, democratic organizations, especially within unorganized sectors of the community. Through these new organizations, Asian Americans expanded democracy for all sectors of the community". The AAM confronted fundamental questions of "power and domination in U.S. society" and the world. Activists sought to build a movement among the least well off segments of the pan-Asian community, in solidarity with other oppressed peoples internationally, and to do so by creating new leadership and organization.


During AAM, activists fought some great struggles to achieve justice and equality. They included such well known events as the San Francisco State strike in 1968, the decade long struggle to save the International Hotel , the Vincent Chin case in 1985. There were also less well-known events such as the ethnic studies campaign at University of Hawai'i, the struggle to save the Little Tokyos and the International District on the West Coast, Chinatowns in Boston and Philadelphia, garment worker strikes in New York and Boston.


There is great debate about the legacy of the AAM. Most detached Asian American scholars feel that it ended after the war. Others scholars feel that it lasted into the '80s. Still others, including us here in the Azine, feel that its legacy continues to the present in numerous issues. The AAM was a movement for justice and equality for Asian Americans, goals that still are to be achieved, goals that many Asian American activists are still fighting for.

* We talk about the contemporary Asian American movement because we recognize that many Asian Americans before the '60s fought to achieve the same goals.