by Helen Gym
It’s not often we have a chance to celebrate the amazing lives of extraordinary Philadelphians, but the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was just too good of an opportunity not to let folks know about Philly’s own Ed Nakawatase.
This week hundreds of SNCC members from all over the country are gathering in Raleigh, North Carolina, to honor one of the pillar organizations of the civil rights movement. Ed will be making the journey with them, likely the only surviving Asian American member of the group.
Ed, a third generation Japanese American, was born in an internment camp in Poston, AZ, and grew up in Seabrook, New Jersey, the son of plant workers at Seabrook Farms. In 1963 at age 20, Ed dropped out of college and headed to Atlanta as a SNCC staff member in what he described as a "high moral enterprise."
"It was 1963. There was the march on Washington, and there were demonstrations happening all over the country protesting racial discrimination. It was moving and terribly exciting," Ed told me this weekend. "It just seemed beside the point to stay in college."
Ed worked as an intake person in the Atlanta office with SNCC luminaries like John Lewis and Julian Bond. That’s a photo of Ed above working at his desk. It was a basic job such as it was, taking calls and logging reports. That hardly mattered. As he put it, he wanted to locate himself at a "transcendent moment of history."
"If I was anything, I was incredibly lucky – lucky that at a very young age I was witness to one of the greatest social struggles in our nation's history at the pinnacle of its power and moral force."
He spent one Christmas in jail, after he and others from the office were refused service at a local restaurant, the Toddle House, which would become the site of a number of SNCC sit-ins (you can see a photo here).
"We were arrested for criminal trespass. There were about 12 of us: two or three white women, three black women, five or six black men, and then there was me. I wanted to be jailed with the guys – for obvious reasons – but I was told I couldn’t because I wasn’t 'colored.' So I spent two days in the city jail alone, which was a pretty frightening experience, and then got transferred to the county jail where I spent Christmas."
Being Asian American wasn’t much of an issue within the SNCC community, where gaps around education and class privilege tended to reveal more division. But outside SNCC, it was different.
"It always seemed a little dangerous in varying degrees in the white community."
Heroism, as it existed at the time, was largely nameless and faceless – if only because of its breadth not because of any lack of strength.
"To have been in the South in the 1960s, to have seen the sheer vehemence and hatred against black people was something, . . and despite that, they changed the country. There were probably more things that happened then than I could comprehend at the time.
"Reflecting on it now is to remember the many poor, usually undereducated, and always deprecated Southern Blacks who encountered violence, terrorism, and the unwavering hostility of the local white ruling class but who continued to fight for their rightful place as citizens. Those were the real heroes by any measure. There were many others, of course, including the often besieged and beleaguered organizers who worked in some of the meanest towns in the Bible Belt. I was, by contrast, a comparatively privileged sojourner who became much the better for taking this journey."
His experience, of course, shaped his life, providing him with an "alternative view of the country" and its needs than he could have learned elsewhere. He became more conscious of American history. He learned about the internment camps that his parents rarely discussed and other parts of Asian American history, drawing "inspiration from the African American movement like many Asian Americans of my generation."
"It made me realize the possibilities of social struggles and organizing. By my sights we are better as a country than we were, in terms of race certainly but also in terms of [other aspects of inclusion] like sexual orientation. I see that advancement as a tribute to the power of social movements. That’s what’s made the difference – as opposed to great leaders or acts of Congress. It was the people."
Ed spent almost a year and a half in Atlanta before returning to New Jersey to finish his studies and continue his social activism. He was active in the anti-war movement in the 60s and 70s, the redress movement around the internment of Japanese Americans and spent more than three decades as the national representative for Native American Affairs for the American Friends Service Committee, active in many pivotal moments of the American Indian Movement as well.
Today, Ed’s happily ensconced in Germantown where he’s lived for decades. He’s an unabashed "left wing socialist" who’s also "congenitally optimistic," as he describes himself.
We’ve always been a noisy bunch here at Asian Americans United, but with Ed at our helm (he’s our board chair) we’ve benefited mightily from his skillfulness at humorously giving perspective on a situation, the wisdom gained from a long history of struggle, and a vision for work which has always been about a larger picture of change. I’ve always admired his humility and wit and the strength of his politics, which has only grown over an incredible span of time in both breadth and depth.
I and all of us at Asian Americans United wish Ed a happy journey to Raleigh (a number of us will be with him as well), and thank him for all the wisdom, passion, and love for this society he’s shown to a new generation of inspired activists. And, to conclude, a few more words from Ed:
"This society is vulnerable to change and still hasn’t fully developed to where it has the potential to be. So many things are still possible and more things are necessary too. Keep at it, and don’t quit."