History of the Asian American Civil Rights Movement

Fred Korematsu, Minoru Yasui, and Gordon Hirabayashi at a press conference about the Asian American Civil Rights Movement
Fred Korematsu, Minoru Yasui, and Gordon Hirabayashi at a press conference about the Asian American Civil Rights Movement.

Bettman Archive / Getty Images

During the Asian American civil rights movement of the 1960s and '70s, activists fought for the development of ethnic studies programs in universities, an end to the Vietnam War, and reparations for Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during World War II. The movement had come to a close by the late 1980s.

The Birth of Yellow Power

By watching Black people expose institutional racism and government hypocrisy, Asian Americans began to identify how they, too, had faced discrimination in the United States.

The ‘Black power’ movement caused many Asian Americans to question themselves,” wrote Amy Uyematsu in “The Emergence of Yellow Power,” a 1969 essay.

“‘Yellow power' is just now at the stage of an articulated mood rather than a program—disillusionment and alienation from white America and independence, race pride and self-respect.”

Black activism played a fundamental role in the launch of the Asian American civil rights movement, but Asians and Asian Americans influenced Black radicals as well.

Black activists often cited the writings of China’s communist leader Mao Zedong. Also, a founding member of the Black Panther Party—Richard Aoki—was Japanese American. A military veteran who spent his early years in an internment camp, Aoki donated weapons to the Black Panthers and trained them in their use.

Impact of Internment

Like Aoki, a number of Asian American civil rights activists were Japanese American internees or the children of internees. The decision of President Franklin Roosevelt to force more than 110,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps during World War II had a detrimental impact on the community.

Forced into camps based on fears that they still maintained ties to the Japanese government, Japanese Americans attempted to prove that they were authentically American by assimilating, yet they continued to face discrimination.

Speaking out about the racial bias they faced felt risky for some Japanese Americans, given their past treatment by the U.S. government.

Laura Pulido, wrote in "Black, Brown, Yellow and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles:"

“Unlike other groups, Japanese Americans were expected to be quiet and behave and thus did not have sanctioned outlets to express the anger and indignation that accompanied their racially subordinated status.”


When not only Black people but also Latinxs and Asian Americans from various ethnic groups began to share their experiences of oppression, indignation replaced fear about the ramifications of speaking out.

Asian Americans on college campuses demanded a curriculum representative of their histories. Activists also sought to prevent gentrification from destroying Asian American neighborhoods.

Explained activist Gordon Lee in a 2003 Hyphen magazine piece called “The Forgotten Revolution”:

“The more we examined our collective histories, the more we began to find a rich and complex past. And we became outraged at the depths of the economic, racial and gender exploitation that had forced our families into roles as subservient cooks, servants or coolies, garment workers and prostitutes, and which also improperly labeled us as the ‘model minority’ comprised of ‘successful’ businessmen, merchants or professionals.” 

Students' Efforts

College campuses provided fertile ground for the movement. Asian Americans at the University of California, Los Angeles launched groups such as the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) and Orientals Concerned.

A group of Japanese American UCLA students also formed the left-leaning publication Gidra in 1969. Meanwhile, on the East Coast, branches of AAPA formed at Yale and Columbia. In the Midwest, Asian student groups formed at the University of Illinois, Oberlin College, and the University of Michigan.

Recalled Lee:

“By 1970, there were more than 70 campus and…community groups with ‘Asian American’ in their name. The term symbolized the new social and political attitudes that were sweeping through communities of color in the United States. It was also a clear break with the name ‘Oriental.’”

Outside of college campuses, organizations such as I Wor Kuen and Asian Americans for Action formed on the East Coast.

One of the movement’s greatest triumphs was when Asian American students and other students of color participated in strikes in 1968 and '69 at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley for the development of ethnic studies programs. Students demanded to design the programs and select the faculty who would teach the courses.

Today, San Francisco State offers more than 175 courses in its College of Ethnic Studies. At Berkeley, Professor Ronald Takaki helped develop the nation’s first Ph.D. program in comparative ethnic studies.

Vietnam and Pan-Asian Identity

A challenge of the Asian American civil rights movement from the outset was that Asian Americans identified by ethnic group rather than as a racial group. The Vietnam War changed that. During the war, Asian Americans—Vietnamese or otherwise—faced hostility.

Lee said:

“The injustices and racism exposed by the Vietnam War also helped cement a bond between different Asian groups living in America. In the eyes of the United States military, it didn’t matter if you were Vietnamese or Chinese, Cambodian or Laotian, you were a ‘gook,’ and therefore subhuman.”

The Movement Ends

After the Vietnam War, many radical Asian American groups dissolved. There was no unifying cause to rally around. For Japanese Americans, though, the experience of being interned had left festering wounds. Activists organized to have the federal government apologize for its actions during World War II.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed Proclamation 4417, in which internment was declared a “national mistake.” A dozen years later, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which distributed $20,000 in reparations to surviving internees or their heirs and included an apology from the federal government.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "History of the Asian American Civil Rights Movement." ThoughtCo, Mar. 14, 2021, thoughtco.com/asian-american-civil-rights-movement-history-2834596. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, March 14). History of the Asian American Civil Rights Movement. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/asian-american-civil-rights-movement-history-2834596 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "History of the Asian American Civil Rights Movement." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/asian-american-civil-rights-movement-history-2834596 (accessed June 4, 2023).