Second of a three-part series
The life of Jack Hasegawa is important in the history of civil rights and also in the understanding of how aesthetics—the study of beauty—is crucial in the answer to racism. It means very much that an American of Asian descent from California, felt that fighting for the rights of people different from him, African Americans in the South, was real self-expression and honest pride. That was a beautiful thing to do and also just. I am grateful for this interview, which provides rich evidence for what Eli Siegel, founder of the education Aesthetic Realism, explained: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
What has been called race or ethnicity, the way people are visually alike-and-different, in skin tone, features, perhaps texture of hair—all this is part of the great sameness and difference of reality. We won't be truly civilized and proud and kind on the subject until we see it as that.These important sentences explain the cause of racism. They also explain the ethical impulsion in people who were willing to give their lives so that justice could win.
California, Nashville, Atlanta
JACK HASEGAWA: When I was in high school, the civil rights movement was just beginning. We didn’t have television, but we’d hear that people had been marching in Montgomery, and that they had been beaten and sprayed with water hoses. I was determined to be part of the nonviolent struggle. In college I spent a lot of time in the South with students picketing cafeterias in Nashville. Later I came back to Atlanta. We were very influenced by Dr. King and through him by Gandhi: the idea that we should not give up; we should examine the roots of [injustice] and be part of change.
ALICE BERNSTEIN: Where were you going to college?
JH: At the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California in the early 1960s.
AB: Did you go South with an organization?
JH: Most of the times that I was in the South was through the Methodist church, which was one of the most progressive forces in the United States at that time. They sponsored groups from all over the country to go to the South and participate in any way we could. They trained us. We cooperated closely with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and some of us were with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).
AB: What did you do when you went to Atlanta?
JH: Being a Japanese-American in the South was somewhat ambiguous. I often tell the story of being on a picket line at a housing project in Atlanta. A group of young white men were harassing us, but stopped when they saw me and asked, “Who the hell are you?” They were not accustomed to seeing this face. Because of the ambiguity, I had an interesting job: to walk between the black and white housing projects, finding ways that willing people could meet. I spent a lot of time organizing in churches and may have been the only person in Atlanta who was free to be a bridge between the black and white communities.
AB: How did you feel about the work that you were doing?
JH: It was very exciting and gave me a taste for organizing, which is something I’ve done a great deal since. I was also struck by the sense of not really belonging. It was starkly portrayed as a struggle of black and white—and the rest of us in the country were not really in that discussion. I wanted to be. I remember buying a gray suit and a hat and trying to grow a moustache so I could be more like the black pastors whom I admired so much. The moustache didn’t work very well.
The main thing I remember about the Civil Rights movement is waiting. When Dr. King or Ralph Abernathy or other leaders were appearing, they would call and say, “Would you please come to such and such a corner or such and such a church?” We’d show up and sit there for hours [while permits and other stumbling blocks were cleared]—sometimes singing, sometimes talking; sometimes organizers would give us pep talks. We were just doing the work every day, trying to make some small change. I was privileged to be a witness to that.
AB: Was there ever any situation where you were in danger?
JH: We were in danger almost every day. I lived with a group of students in a black housing project adjacent to Atlanta University. Crosses were burned on our lawn and graffiti painted on our apartments. We often went to restaurants together and were treated badly. We had one pizza that had been soaked in chemicals and things to make it taste bad. We were determined to eat it. So we ate the whole thing and left a tip. When we got home we were all sick.
We were once invited to a Methodist camp up in Union County, Georgia. We rented a car and drove up. I remember being without any power—this was before cell phones. Our procedure was to check in every half hour with one person who stayed behind. If we didn’t check in, she was to call the police. We had a flat tire during that trip. We were really frightened. Pickup trucks followed us and you could see the guns on the gun racks. When we got to the camp, a guy in a truck pulled over and said, “We just wanted to make sure you guys got here okay.”
AB: You believed them?
JH: I’m still not sure.
AB: Is there someone or something in particular that you recall and would like to mention?
JH: Julian Bond was a phenomenal student organizer. What I remember about him was his constant reverence for the courage of the regular people. It was impressive to see just ordinary people lined up, participating for themselves.
AB: I see you have a big emotion and I respect it. I share it in my own way, not having been there.
JH: Yes. When you see people go beyond their own limits to help others, you can’t forget that.
AB: Thank you for your emotion and what’s behind it. Mr. Siegel defined ethics—one definition—as “the art of enjoying justice.” I think that is a true and beautiful definition. The enjoyment has to do with liking the fact that we have feeling for other people.Coming soon, the conclusion: about desegregation in Japan, and an interview with Yoshino Hasegawa, mother of Jack Hasegawa.
Boston and Vietnam
JH: I remember being in Boston. For a short time I joined the Black Panther party mainly so I could serve free breakfast to school kids. Most people think of the Black Panthers as being very scary and violent, but these guys—in spite of the black leather jackets—would get up early in the morning and make breakfasts and serve them to poor children—long before the federal government did.
AB: That was during the Vietnam war. Dr. King was a very courageous, vocal critic of the war in Vietnam. He had mighty big feeling for people everywhere. Dr. King’s greatness was his feeling that there should be justice not only to black people but to all people. I’ve written about how he spoke out early and steadily against America’s vicious, unjust war in Vietnam. He said: "This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows,...cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
JH: I remember going to the memorial service for Dr. King at White Stadium in Boston. The Panthers had set up there and were monitoring the gates, and only black people could go in. I remember even Marty Gopen who was a blind Jewish organizer in Roxbury, who had been there his whole life, being turned away from the door. But when I came to the door they said, “Let him through.”
Sitting in the stadium and looking around at thousands of people, I was convinced I was the only Asian-American person there. Several of the speakers talked about the war in Vietnam and the anti-Asian racism and imperialism here. It struck me so strongly that I had taken a lot of responsibility for African Americans and had spent a lot of time in graduate programs learning about African history. But I knew nothing about Asia and barely spoke Japanese. And so I went home and called the Mission board and said, “Is there anything I can do in Asia?” They said, “As a matter of fact, we’re looking for someone to do community organizing training.” So I signed up for that.
AB: There’s a lot of history here and a lot of emotion. I respect your choices. Earlier you mentioned being a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war.
JH: Yes. When I finished seminary at Harvard, I was eligible for the draft. My draft board advised me to take a ministerial deferment. I wrote and said I wasn’t qualified because I had no intention of being ordained. They wrote back and said okay, you’re 1-A, eligible for immediate drafting. Then I appealed for conscientious objector status. My dad at that time was the first Japanese-American appointed to our county draft board. He resigned because he couldn’t be part of a decision that involved his kids. So my draft board, after a lot of discussion, gave me conscientious objector status and allowed me to be assigned to the United Methodist Church as an overseas missionary. So that’s why I went to Japan.
(Link to Part One)