An East Wind ezine interview with Ed Nakawatase by Steve Louie and Eddie Wong
This interview with took place on email from November, 2019 to March, 2020. It started with questions from Steve Louie and Eddie Wong. After Ed responded, we sent him follow-up ones. We have left off most of the questions while leaving Ed’s subtitles, and this article incorporates all his responses.
Please describe your family background and how that might have affected your decision to drop out of college and join the civil rights movement.
I was born in Poston, Arizona on September 29, 1943 to Kenzo and Aiko Hamashima Nakawatase. My parents met in camp and married in 1942. My father was an Issei who lived and worked in the Los Angeles area. My mother, a Nisei, was born in the Imperial Valley of California, and was a widow with a daughter, Reiko, born in Japan in 1940. She returned to the United States after the death of her husband and lived with her parents and her six siblings in the Imperial Valley.
Ed Nakatawase. Photo from Interview for the Julian Bond Oral History Project by American University. 2019
As the camps were being depopulated before the end of the war, our family moved to Wilson, Arkansas, where my younger sister, Hisako, was born in late 1945. (Given the reticence of my parents in speaking of this period in any detail, there is much that is unknown of our family’s internment itself and the relocation process. There was even less mentioned about our time in Arkansas.) Within two years, our family moved to Seabrook, New Jersey, located in Cumberland County in the southwestern part of the state. This is where my parents, along with other former Japanese Americans internees (numbering at one point in the immediate postwar period as many as 2,500 people) got jobs and housing working for Seabrook Farms, Inc. The company was then the largest producer of frozen foods in the world.
Seabrook was where I grew up. It was an anomalous community in many ways, beginning, of course, with us, the Nikkei who moved there. We were Japanese, non-whites with many non-Christians and non-English speakers, living in the rural, very conservative, overwhelmingly white area known as South Jersey. (I was to discover later that the area had major Ku Klux Klan activity during the national revival of the Klan in the 1920s when the group extended its core white racism in the South to oppose immigration and Catholics…).
In Seabrook, we were part of a working-class community, strongly bonded by our ethnicity. A little later, there were postwar refugees from the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania who also worked at Seabrook. Our community was also shaped by the company that employed and housed our families. The work was hard, and particularly intensive during the summer when the various fruits and vegetables were harvested and brought to the plant to be washed, cooked, quick frozen, packaged, and then shipped out to various markets. During the summer peak, workers at the packing plant did 12-hour shifts. During the off-season, most Seabrook workers were on unemployment compensation.
The community had a range of social activities. We played the full run of sports seasonably, mostly unsupervised; there were scout troops; a community center with a gym and a library; a summer day camp and both a nondenominational Christian church and a Buddhist temple. We went to Seabrook Elementary School, a K-8 school, after which we went to Bridgeton High School, located six miles away in the county seat.
Seabrook Farms Day Camp. Photo from NJ Digital Highway.
Growing up in Seabrook, in retrospect, seemed almost idyllic. As kids, we had lots of open space to roam, to play in, and to explore. And we did all of those things. There was occasional mischief particularly at Halloween. The community felt totally safe. We didn’t lock our doors and our family was probably typical. There was no crime to speak of. Few of us dared to bring dishonor on our families by conspicuous, untoward behavior in the community. The adage, “It takes a village to raise a child” had more force than I knew at the time.
Civil rights consciousness
Despite our high visibility in the broader community, through high school I don’t recall any racist taunts, no cries of “Jap” by white kids, no physical attacks, and no scarring collective exclusions and humiliations (there probably were such anti-Asian acts when the first groups of Nikkei came to the local area but by the 1950s such overt hostility was gone).
But where did social consciousness, specifically mine, come from? There were many elements, many indirect, in that process. My parents were not political in any explicit sense. As noted earlier, my parents, like many other Nikkei parents of their generation, did not speak in great detail about the internment. There was no talk of the systemic racism that the internment represented or the discrimination that they had experienced. Their stance seemed mostly resignation; the internment experience seemed more like a prolonged natural disaster comparable to a hurricane or an earthquake. And it was now over.
My father was a Buddhist. My mother a Protestant Christian whose parents were Christians in Japan. My parents imparted moral teachings implicitly; church-going was not mandatory though behaving decently was… I recall my mother once talking supportively about the famous concert by Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial after being barred from performing at Constitution Hall because of her race. The lesson was low key but clear.
As with most Americans, mass media had obvious effect on my consciousness in the 1950s. I started to read the newspapers regularly and to follow the television news. I was shocked to read about Emmett Till’s vicious murder in Mississippi. There was the Montgomery bus boycott. There was the television coverage of efforts to desegregate Southern schools after the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas was a big story, and awareness of the civil rights movement seemed to be building exponentially.
The struggle for racial equality was clearly on the ascendancy. The sit-in campaigns, the Freedom Rides, the extensive efforts to desegregate public accommodations along with many other supportive actions drew me in. By the early 1960s, I fully identified with the civil rights movement. But there were a number of contradictions. While there were black people who worked at Seabrook and lived in the area, I knew only a handful from school and counted none of them as a close friend. We never spoke of the struggle going on in the South. And beyond individuals, I had no contact at all with the black community in Bridgeton. So, while fervent, my identification with the movement was somewhat abstract and highly moralistic.
Besides verbal expressions of support there were some modest supportive actions on my part in high school, two of which I remember. I wrote my junior research paper on the sit-in movement, for which I got an A. As sports editor of our high school paper, in a break with tradition, I featured two profiles with photos of black athletes on the same page for one of our issues. But there were no visible local support groups for civil rights and my support remained abstract. I made no effort to make contacts with the local black community.
Were you involved with – or did you attend – any local civil rights activities before deciding to go South? Did anyone else you know go with you? Or was there simply that siren call you heard?
It is striking to me after all these years to reflect that my initial engagement in the civil rights movement didn’t flow out of local civil rights activities and contacts either in high school or college. There was stuff going on, certainly in college and less certainly while I was in high school but I had no relationship to any related activity.
In high school, I had great interest in the incipient movement but it was personal and strangely remote. As an example of this, I would cite another experience… I was the president of the Bridgeton (NJ) High School Commentator Club, a group that had debates and discussed public issues. As a perk for heading the club, I got to be the public-address announcer for our football home games, doing so from the 50-yard line with the highest and best seat in the stadium.
During my senior year, I remember two controversial positions that our group took in 1962. In our very conservative community, we supported the diplomatic recognition by the US of the People’s Republic of China (or Red China as it was unpopularly known then) and we also came out strongly against the death penalty. Our adviser was shocked by our decisions though to his credit he didn’t try to overturn them. But inexplicably, our group never picked up the issue of civil rights, and this was two years after the sit-ins and the year after the freedom rides. And I don’t remember why we didn’t; as noted, our club certainly didn’t shy away from dissenting positions. I am embarrassed as I recollect the memory. So yes, I responded to a siren call, a very personal one.
By my first year at Rutgers in 1962, my support of the civil rights movement grew stronger. There were regular civil rights actions seemingly everywhere. Media coverage of the movement was extensive. Most notably for me was the campaign in the spring of 1963 to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama. As that campaign developed, as the cumulative force of the civil rights movement became a siren call, it became clear to me that I needed to join the movement.
By that summer, I had resolved to do just that, as the movement expression put it, “to put my body on the line.” Mere lack of experience, visible skills, organizational knowledge or contacts and my standing as a college student were not serious impediments to making my decision. I was embarking on an adventure and joining a great cause.
SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) had great appeal to me because of its youth and bravery in the toughest parts of the Deep South as seen and filtered through the media. What probably sealed the deal for me was a television interview that featured Jim Forman, the executive director of SNCC. Forman candidly and un-histrionically made the point that loss of life was a real possibility for SNCC staffers given the depth of white racism and resistance. He also turned out to be right. But for me the interview, fleeting as it was, underscored the seriousness of what was happening and the high stakes involved.
How did your family react to your leaving college to move to Atlanta to join SNCC?
Neither of my parents opposed my decision to drop out of college and go south. Whatever anguish and reservations they had about what I was doing, they kept those to themselves. There was probably concern, never expressed, about my going to a distant, unknown and probably dangerous place. But my parents respected my decision and weren’t going to change it. Whatever qualms there were, I think my parents trusted me so there was no subsequent drama.
My father had been diagnosed with tuberculosis four years earlier, and was placed in a state sanitarium located about three hours away in Glen Gardner, New Jersey. We visited him regularly during his stay. As his condition improved, my father was able to go outside the sanitarium and later come home occasionally. My father left the sanitarium for good by 1965, frailer no longer, to continue as a mechanic at the plant. My mother’s life was changing as well, since she became the sole breadwinner (or rice winner?) But I digress.
By the fall of 1963, the die was cast. I dropped out of college, spoke to my parents, and then boarded a bus on a 24-hour trip that ended in Atlanta. I went to the SNCC office at 8½ Raymond Street near the complex of black colleges. As noted, despite my passion and my hopes and dreams, I knew no one in SNCC. I had made no preparatory calls nor sent any letter or resume. The setting was fluid on both sides. SNCC had no formal process for screening volunteers, as far as I could tell; there were no tests, no interviews and no requests for references. All of which, of course, worked out well for me since I doubt I would have survived any reasonable in-depth screening.
Instead, I spoke to SNCC staff persons Worth Long and Ruby Doris Robinson. Both worked in the Atlanta office. It was a friendly conversation of which I remember no details, and the upshot of it was that I became a paid volunteer for SNCC within a month. Initially, on staff, I took in daily phone updates from SNCC field offices, stretching from Virginia to Southwest Georgia to the Mississippi Delta.
Later, I worked in the Production Department that turned out posters and leaflets, particularly for the Freedom Democratic Party in Mississippi and other insurgent black political efforts. It also turned out the Student Voice, SNCC’s newsletter that was edited by Julian Bond. I later worked in SNCC’s Research Department that did some pioneering work on identifying the local white power structures in the areas where SNCC worked.
A basic fact about SNCC was the most obvious and perhaps the most important one. SNCC was most decidedly and indisputably a black-led organization and it remained so to the very end. It was student-led with strong infusions of a spiritually based philosophy of nonviolence. John Lewis was the strongest proponent of this perspective. There were SNCC staff and supporters who saw nonviolence primarily as a tactic, not as a broader philosophy and political approach.
The debate, such as it was at that time, was framed as nonviolence versus self-defense. And I think that debate was also internal, within individuals as well as between individuals. While nonviolence had many critics, and their numbers increased, there was no shift in SNCC’s tactical approach in the communities of the South during the time I was there. But the frequent violence faced by SNCC staff in the South through 1963-64 and the infusion of more secular and fewer church raised staff, probably shifted perspectives about the issue of nonviolence in the organization.
Being Japanese American in SNCC was to be an object of some curiosity, at least initially. I recall that some Spelman students were taken by the blackness, and most certainly by the straightness of my hair. Something I had never thought much about before or since. There was the occasional observation, from field staff said in total innocence, about how well I spoke English. As I perceived it, while there was significant puzzlement about me, there was a complete lack of any hostility directed to me personally or to Japanese and Asians more broadly. I simply became another staff person in the SNCC office.
Ed Nakatawase at SNCC office in Atlanta, GA in 1964. Photo by Tamio Wakayama.
In the neighborhood, there was a Black Muslim (who never gave me his name) who sold Muhammad Speaks, the newspaper of the Nation of Islam (NOI), and whom I encountered at Tibb’s, a local diner. As a fellow colored person, he saw me as a possible recruit, too, or at least a supporter of the Nation, playing up the emerging power of the People’s Republic of China, soon to set off a nuclear bomb. Another regular was Jeremiah X, who was originally from Philadelphia, who had regular contacts with SNCC. Jeremiah who was quite affable, also saw me as a fellow colored person though not a likely recruit.
With you being accepted as just another volunteer, how would you explain that to a young Asian American activist today, who exists in a hyper-identity environment?
I came to political consciousness when Asian American was hardly a discrete category (or a demographic term not a political one as it was to become) so it was a simpler time, in that sense. It was a time of black, white and other. It was a time, for me, of identity clarification. I was always Japanese American but being Asian American in the political sense in which that term evolved at the end of the 1960s came a bit later for me. Probably living in the East had something to do with this delay though I did subscribe to Gidra (one of the first Asian American newspapers, it was anti-racist, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist) which helped my understanding a great deal.
But in SNCC in 1963-64, as noted, it was a simple proposition. We had tasks to do and we tried to do them. We were not then coalition partners or Asian allies in the way that we were to understand in later struggles.
I was 20 years old then which meant that I was too young and inexperienced to be as rationally scared as I should have been in various situations. With that understanding, some memories come to mind. One was a Fourth of July rally that featured some of the leading Southern segregationists. The speakers included George Wallace, Lester Maddox who was later to become governor of Georgia, and Jim Johnson, a justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court and a many times unsuccessful candidate for governor of that state. There were other hard core segregationists there whose names I have forgotten.
White segregationist at rally.
The rally, held at the local fairgrounds, was a kind of last hurrah for legal segregation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, barring racial segregation in public accommodations and racial (and as many of us were to discover later, gender) discrimination on a number of fronts with applicable federal sanctions, had just taken effect two days earlier. The crowd was angry and hopped up; waiting for their cues from the speakers (the resemblance to current Trump rallies is a bit eerie, I think).
For reasons that seem less clear even foolish now, I went with a few black SNCC cohorts to the rally. We were curious about how segregationists would respond to this massive defeat of racial segregation. Ironically, of course, we couldn’t be banned from the rally because we weren’t white. Our plan, such as it was, was to remain silent, discreet, and alert, remembering that we were there to observe, not challenge, the crowd. The plan worked, up to a point.
Later in the rally, there was an ongoing commotion some distance from where we were. A group of blacks were assaulted by whites who were angered by the group coming with a white woman. Once the action started, our group left the rally quickly. We got the details later. Unbeknownst to us, another group of SNCC colleagues came to the rally with a white female staffer. I understood the bravado but it was a dangerous thing to do under the circumstances. All of our people got out of there, some with bruises but it could have been much worse.
Another similar incident, this one a near-miss, happened later in the summer when an interracial group of us came back after a nice day out at the park at Lake Lanier, a few miles north of Atlanta. Our car going home was driven by Wilson Brown, SNCC’s print shop operator; on the front seat with him was Nan Grogan (later Nan Orrock, a Georgia state legislator). On the drive home, a car in the lane to our right crashed through a wooden road barrier indicating some road repair work. We stopped and got out of the car to see if people in the other car were all right.
We discovered that, yes, the three or four people in the other car were uninjured, they were all white men, they had a lot to drink, and they didn’t like an interracial group, especially one with a black male and a white woman passenger in the front seat. After some quick verbal exchanges, we drove away as fast as we could back to the relative safety of Atlanta.
Working in SNCC was the most important experience of my life. I learned some basic truths about the society I lived in and I learned about myself. The experience sharpened my sensitivities about race, poverty and power and in turn helped shape ultimately what I was to do with my life. The SNCC experience not only altered my view of the world, more importantly it changed how I looked at the world. The view now was from the bottom and in the margins of society, and that has made all the difference. The learnings weren’t instant but they were lasting.
One early insight from SNCC was learning, indisputably, that racism was not a regional problem mostly based in the South. It was instead a profoundly national American problem. I also learned soon enough that white racism was not simply a matter of discriminatory behavior or bad attitudes; it was a deeply ingrained system of economic and social power linked to cultural assumptions and patterns of privilege. SNCC was also a place where my sense of being Asian American was being developed in that turbulent context; challenging racial oppression of black people opened up windows of exploration everywhere else in the society. I became a conscious Asian American in SNCC.
Could you elaborate more on how you learned racism is not a regional problem in the South?
This particular awareness took a while to develop. It certainly didn’t happen overnight. And there were a number of elements that helped over time. Let me count the ways. There were the experiences of African Americans from the North who worked for SNCC and who were clear about the pervasiveness of racism throughout the country (or as I once read, “The South starts at the Canadian border”). Working in SNCC’s Research Department helped also. There, through the clipping of Southern newspapers, the perusal of other publications and other such duties, we examined the interplay and relationships between political leaders and the economic and social elites of the region.
Under the leadership of Jack Minnis, SNCC Research did some pioneer work on defining and determining the nature of white power structures, looking at places like Mississippi as well as the relatively more liberal South in places like the Atlanta. Looking back, the analysis was more economic determinism than Marxism but important in looking at the roots of racism and its connections with economic power…
Another blunt analytical point made many times during this period as the Civil Rights Act was being implemented was that black people now had the right to buy a hamburger where they wished – but could they afford it? And various words to that effect, underscoring the relationship between race and poverty. So, this broad insight grew sharper over time. In my case, by the late-1960s, I identified myself as a socialist and have done so ever since.
Julian Bond, who was SNCC’s communications director, was a crucial figure in the life of the organization. He was a suave and gracious person who had a brilliant run as SNCC’s point person with the national press at the peak of the Movement. He once, kindly and inaccurately, called me the “best informed person in the Movement” (it shows you what cachet a subscription to the English publication, The New Statesman, can give you).
Julian Bond in center of photo. Photo from SNCC Digital Gateway.
But most importantly, Julian guided me to an article in Ebony magazine about the mostly unknown Southern black legislators who were elected during Reconstruction. The article pointed out the great achievements of Reconstruction in the South. Knowledge of those legislators and that period had been mostly buried and has only recently been given a fuller and anti-racist assessment. That assessment, 56 years ago, was a great revelation, one of many out of my time in the Movement. And I had Julian to thank for that.
I was influenced by many people in SNCC. Getting reports over the phone from SNCC field staff and meeting people from the field gave me a sense of the day to day courage of SNCC staff, most of whom I didn’t know personally. Facing constant danger and working in some of the roughest places of the Deep South SNCC staff provided an ongoing inspiration which has only grown with the passage of time.
John Lewis, now a member of Congress, was then a brave, morally and physically courageous head of SNCC, He was an exemplar of the fortitude of SNCC people. He had already been jailed about a couple dozen times then; I was arrested with him once in Atlanta after a Toddle House refused to serve an interracial group of SNCC workers in late 1963. (That’s another story, separately chronicled.) I remember him often saying, as a quiet mantra, “There is a serious revolution going on.” He was right, of course.
Another influential person in SNCC (and whom I had met in person only once) was Bob Moses, who headed up the work in the Mississippi Delta. Mostly by word of mouth, Moses was already a legendary figure because of his organizing work in the Delta (he had been there since 1961) with poor, largely undereducated, and constantly demeaned black people. As pointed out by many observers, his organizing approach focused heavily on listening intensely, speaking little, and downplaying, to the vanishing point, his educational credentials.
Bob Moses, leasder of SNCC Mississippi projects speaking during memorial service in the burned ruins of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church. It was this fire the three murdered civil rights workers were investigating when they were arrested. Photo by Tamio Wakayama.
It was an approach that encouraged trust, and helped build self-confidence and community. The approach became a larger model in the organization and beyond. I was hired as a community organizer by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in the summer of 1965 at the beginning of the War on Poverty in rural Southern New Jersey. For me as a novice organizer, the operational model for the work was obvious: it was the example of Bob Moses.
During the time I was there, the sharpest difference I recall was around the Freedom Democratic Party challenge at the Democratic convention in 1964 in Atlantic City to seating the regular Democratic delegation from Mississippi. After extensive and often dangerous work in Mississippi, the racially (integrated Freedom Democrats, were given only two seats at the convention with the bulk of the state’s seats going to the segregated (and Goldwater supporting) regular Mississippi delegation.
SNCC was outraged at the ultimate compromise. The compromise was supported by the national Democratic Party and ultimately by the other national civil rights organizations. I remember the anger of fellow staffers who had been on the scene in Atlantic City. It clarified the sense that the compromise brokered by the national party overrode the legitimacy of the grass roots citizens in Mississippi. It was a bitter conclusion and, I suspect, lasted for many for a long time.
MIssissippi Freedom Democratic Party rally.
I’m sure that there were ongoing gender issues within SNCC. They didn’t yet surface at that time. A critical statement, written by Mary King and Casey Hayden (both former SNCC staffers) on the role of women in the civil rights movement, came out about a year later.
Leadership relationship to staff and volunteers
I remember a revealing moment that said much about the internal democracy within the organization. At the SNCC office the wash room with a toilet was at the top of the second floor. I once came to the office, and there, at the top of the stairs cleaning the toilet, was Jim Forman, the executive director. SNCC was non-hierarchal and it seemed that almost every issue was discussed. Staff meetings usually were long (or seemed to be) and discussion was encouraged. I felt intimidated at the time and usually didn’t speak though I certainly could have if I had the nerve.
What do other generations miss in our understanding of the Civil Rights Movement?
One of the elements that needs to be remembered is that the struggle for racial justice is a long one. In the 1960s, most of us were not aware of what is now referred to as “the long civil rights movement”. We were part of a longer struggle going back to the anti-slavery movement. But we (speaking for myself) also lacked knowledge of the more recent efforts against lynching, the early initiatives to desegregate interstate travel, attempts to fight restrictive covenants, broaden black employment, and many other such struggles. It is important to take a longer, and broader view of the struggle for racial equality.
What do you think contributes to being able to take a longer and broader view?
I am optimistic about the future. Part of that, I confess, is congenital; being an optimist is what I am. But the civil rights movement experience was fundamental to solidifying that perception for the rest of my life. In the movement, I saw Southern blacks – a despised, degraded, and oppressed community – defy all presumptions about their capabilities organize themselves and bring down Jim Crow. There were many defeats, to say nothing of terrorism and killings, but the community persisted. And they prevailed, and changed the nation. The civil rights movement became the prototype and the inspiration for the struggles for social justice that soon followed and continue. So, of course, I am optimistic and very hopeful…
On a related point, I have reflected that one missing aspect of this history was the extent to which those of us who came to consciousness in the 1960s were cut off from the experience and historical insights of those progressives who preceded us in the 1930s and 40s. That is to say we were often in the dark about the victories and defeats of the Left of that period, primarily the Communists. There are a number of reasons for that discontinuity but certainly the Cold War and the anti-communism that accompanied it were key in that historical blackout.
Many of us were to learn later, much later, about earlier efforts often led by Communists against Jim Crow (the Scottsboro cases, the brave efforts to form interracial unions, etc.) as well as other campaigns for a social safety net and against fascism. Learning more about these earlier struggles would not necessarily have prevented mistakes in organizing or other aspects in the struggle later but it was a diminishment of our movement.
It does strengthen my sense that all of us have responsibilities in telling and reflecting on our stories and our subsequent understandings. As a Nikkei born in Poston, Arizona, solely because my parents were Japanese, I do feel that weight.
Left to right: Ed Nakatawase, Chanchanit Matorell, Thai Community Development Center Director, and Tamio Wakayama. Washington, D.C. Sept. 28, 2015.
Race in America
Racism remains deeply rooted in American society. With a number of obvious caveats, I am encouraged by the anti-racist movement that now includes a full spectrum of people of color, as well as an unprecedented number of white people who now see themselves as antiracists in the struggle.
I believe that Black Lives Matter is a continuation of the civil rights movement and applaud its militancy and energy. They seem much like SNCC in that way. They most certainly are part of the long civil rights movement.
Ed Nakawatase was born in the Poston internment camp for Japanese Americans in Arizona. He dropped out of Rutgers and spent 1963-1964 working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1965, he started working with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), joined their Third World Coalition national staff in 1972, and became AFSC’s National Representative for Native American Affairs in 1974, a position he held for 31 years. He is currently on the boards for Asian Americans United, the Folk-Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School (both in Philadelphia), and Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center in New Jersey.
Steve Louie is co-editor of Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment published by UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 2001.
Eddie Wong is the editor/publisher of East Wind Ezine.