cheri sakaiBy CHERI SAKAI

My daughter invited me to see “The Butler” this past week. It was a powerful movie and brought back memories of the tension Los Angeles experienced during a period of major change as African American young people rioted in Los Angeles and throughout the country over the inability of minorities to vote, get the best teachers and classes in school, get jobs and job promotions. They could not eat at the same restaurants, or even go to the same restrooms.

Later came the beating of Rodney King, which culminated in another major riot. We knew then that the riots didn’t come about because of one beating but because of many moments of injustice and cruelty.

All these things became very real to me, not because I read it in the papers but because individuals I met and knew through the years had suffered because of racism in the schools, at jobs and in their neighborhoods. I know of minority young people who were bullied and mistreated by not only fellow students but by teachers and administrators until they quit studying and lost faith in their dreams to be successful.

We were fortunate enough to meet and know Bill Hamilton, who worked at the White House through 11 presidencies and was a friend of Eugene Allen, the real-life butler. Since Mr. Allen had passed away, ABC Television as well as several cable stations have interviewed Bill Hamilton about his experiences at the White House. He started working there when he was 20 years old and just recently retired at the age of 75.

He personally wrote a letter to President Johnson requesting equal pay for equal work. For many years his salary was half that of the white staff workers, and Mr. Hamilton used to work as a taxi driver at night to supplement his income. Undoubtedly because of the young people who marched, protested and who were sometimes killed during that period of time, Johnson agreed to raise the salary of the black personnel to equal that of the white servants.

My husband and I spent many memorable years attending New Horizon Christian Church at Florence and Denker, where Mr. Hamilton’s daughter, Cassandra Garrett, with her strong, resonant and beautiful voice, sang and played the piano while co-pastoring the church. At each one of his visits to Los Angeles, Mr. Hamilton would invite us to take a personal tour of the White House.

On Sunday morning we went to two churches. First, Venice Santa Monica Free Methodist Church, which was predominantly Asian, and then we would attend New Horizon, a predominantly African American church. My husband always marveled at the talent and music at this church.

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whittaker in a scene from Lee Daniels' "The Butler."
Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whittaker in a scene from Lee Daniels’ “The Butler.”

After my husband had his stroke, which left him unable to walk without help, my goal was always to make his life as happy and exciting as possible while exercising him from morning to night to help him recover the use of his legs. The pastor at New Horizon as well as the congregation would surround him and pray for him every Sunday and shower him with love and affection.

Going back a few years there was a scene in “The Butler” where young black students sat at a Woolworth lunch counter waiting to be served. They were eventually spat at and hot coffee was thrown on them. That brought back memories of when my family left Gila camp. We were all very hungry and we stopped at a Woolworth counter in Phoenix to eat. We sat there for probably 40 minutes before my mother realized we were not going to be waited on, and so we finally left.

My brother was 12, I was 10, my younger brother was 7 and my baby brother was 3 years old. That had to be tough on my mom, who was 32 years old at the time. Fortunately, we were disciplined to not cry or complain. No, they didn’t curse us, throw coffee on us or spit on us, they just didn’t give us any food to eat.

Years later I remember going to a Poston reunion in Torrance, where Pastor Paul Nagano was the keynote speaker and I was very surprised to hear him say that because of what we as Japanese Americans had endured, we should be at the forefront of the civil rights movement, not standing at the sidelines.

What a contrast to what my mother experienced when there was a meeting at Maryknoll School after everyone was notified of the evacuation back in 1942. She and one other person were the only ones to stand up and say, “I am a citizen of the United States. I have done nothing wrong. Why should I stand back and have my husband, my home, car, everything I own, taken from me without a protest?”

Her husband, my dad, had been taken away and put in a separate prison. He was turned in by some members of the JACL, who were commended for pointing out the leaders of the community.

The movie brought back other memories. At the height of the Watts riot, I remember a young Japanese American who was the nephew of one of the members of the Baptist church we were attending at that time. He was at a liquor store near our house off Washington and Hauser in Los Angeles with some other teenagers. When they saw the police drive up they started running. The young boy was shot and killed with over 28 bullet holes in his back. I don’t recall seeing any of this in the newspaper.

I used to go to that same liquor store to pick up an occasional bottle of milk for our children since at that time there were no grocery stores close by and I did not drive.

Before the riot, my daughter and son were taking piano lessons from a highly recommended African American teacher. He always came dressed in a suit and hat, but he started telling us how the police were stopping him continuously, harassing him and having him spread-eagle himself on the ground in his suit as they searched him.

When my son was entering junior high school, his sixth-grade teacher told us to move to Culver City, where the school system was highly rated. After settling down I contacted this piano teacher to continue the lessons, but his phone was disconnected and no one seemed to know where he was. To this day I wonder what happened to him.

One day I went to L.A. County Hospital and was horrified when the door opened   and I saw a muscular black man writhing in pain, severely bruised and bleeding from several areas of his body as six white perspiring policeman carried him in for medical care. Years later I thought of these two incidents when I saw the Rodney King video.

Yet there is the other side of this. I am grateful we have men and women who are courageous enough to become policemen and policewomen. Their jobs are extremely difficult. I remember being at Crenshaw Square, where I met and talked to the Japanese American lady whose young policeman husband was sent to investigate a marital dispute and was killed because he obviously did not react and shoot fast enough.

Years later in my occupation as an herb specialist, I had as a client Charles Lloyd, the attorney who had won the Attorney of the Year award for having won 167 cases in a row. He showed me the video that won the case for his client, a Korean grocer woman who shot and killed Latasha Harlins, who was starting to walk out of the store with a can of orange juice in her backpack.

In the video the lady was seen reaching over to get the can of orange juice when Latasha, possibly trying to protect herself and her property started hitting the Korean lady.  The lady reached back for her gun, which the trial showed had a very quick trigger, and it went off, killing the girl. Charles Lloyd won the case but the lady and her family had to leave their business and home here and go back to Korea. Needless to say, many African Americans were extremely angry at Charles Lloyd, and the court’s decision.

I remember my mother saying that the U.S. is becoming an opportunity for all races not because it wants to but because international relations depend on how fairly it treat all minorities.

Like the butler, I was raised at a time when as a child I really believed that all teachers, policemen, white people, judges, pastors were in the position they were in because they were perfect. When my older son came home with a copy of the Free Press, I was horrified and angry. So yes, I related to the butler and his wife as they sided against their own son when he participated in riots and marches. How could our children criticize the decisions our government had made? This was during the time of the Vietnam War. We were embarrassed.

We as a public also believed that when you went to church it was all about dressing in your “Sunday best” and doing what was right. I remember wondering why all churches were segregated and was surprised to hear the pastor say that when the Japanese came back from camp, the white churches did not want us there, so the Japanese had to start their own churches.

Again, because the younger generation protested and pointed out these fallacies in our thinking, we as adults had to rethink our belief system. Some young people dropped out of church and society in general, and some like myself went to churches where we could not only question but dig deeper into our own faith, read the Bible and find a God and a relationship to Jesus that was real to us and gave us an answer as to how to deal with what was going on around us.

It could no longer be simply a religion to us but we had to know Jesus was real, alive and could help us understand our adult children, their music and their rebellion. Like the butler and the Hamiltons, we stopped watching “Leave It to Beaver” and “I Love Lucy” to face the anger and injustice we saw right around us.

Cheri Sakai writes from Culver City. She may be contacted at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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  1. Cheri:

    This is powerful and full of passion. Continue to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. These things we’ve faced have not come to tear us down, but to build us up and bring us closer to the One Who holds all of our lives in His hands.

    Praise God for your courage to write what is in your heart and share it with the world. Amen.

    Cassandra E. Garrett, New Horizon Christian Community Church