For the past several years our San Fernando Valley JACL Chapter has hosted an installation lunch at the Odyssey Restaurant in Granada Hills, overlooking the Valley.

A very special speaker at our luncheon on Sunday, Jan. 18, was our speaker, Kent Wong, who serves as director of the UCLA Downtown Labor Center. His impassioned address was spell-binding. I have never heard a speaker who so gripped his audience.

During a break after his presentation, I told Kent that I remember serving on a committee with his dad, Judge Delbert Wong. As I recall, the committee had to do with organizing for affirmative action.

Kent Wong was the guest speaker at the San Fernando Valley JACL installation.
Kent Wong was the guest speaker at the San Fernando Valley JACL installation.

He first noted that this was the weekend honoring Martin Luther King, then went on to declare how revolutionary his leadership in organizing the march to Selma in 1965 was to this country. The march led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon Johnson, which guaranteed voting rights to African Americans in the South, and was followed by the Immigration and Nationalization Act, which resulted in the immigration of thousands of Asian/Pacific Islanders who for years had suffered under the cloud of discriminatory immigration laws.

I was pleased to hear Kent give credit to the passage of redress legislation as a landmark accomplishment for civil rights.

In telling us about the critical need to fix today’s broken immigration laws, Kent told the story of Tam Tran, a 27-year-old Vietnamese woman who, Kent says, was an inspiration to him because of her deep commitment to immigration reform. Her parents, after escaping by boat from Vietnam after the war, were picked up by a German ship. She was born in Germany, but because Germany does not convey citizenship by birth, when her parents moved to the U.S., she was not allowed to apply for many colleges and scholarships.

Tam worked tirelessly for the passage of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which prevented deportation of people such as Tam, and allowed them to enter many colleges that had previously barred them. Tam was able to graduate from UCLA. Her testimony in Congress was key to passage of the bill.

Tragically, Kent reported that four years ago, Tam and another activist, Cynthia Felix, were killed in Maine by a drunk driver.

In writing this column, I see in the Jan. 17 Rafu Shimpo that much to the disappointment of the National JACL, Congress passed amendments to nullify President Obama’s executive order, issued in 2014, that would have expanded the scope of DACA. These amendments endanger the immigration status of an estimated 1.3 million Asian American/Pacific Islanders. Similarly affected was DAPA (Deferred Action for Parental Accountability), which would have allowed employment for the parents of the undocumented children.

Then, on Tuesday, Nancy Gohata of our JACL chapter organized a group of 20 of us to see “Selma.” I understand that Oprah Winfrey, who appears in the film, came up with the major source of money for the film. Some of the names in the story, such as John Lewis, came back to me the film unfolded. The conflict between King and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was shown in factual detail.

Some criticism of the film has to do with the historical record: In the film, President Johnson is dead-set against the march, which was set to go from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Some say that Johnson actually encouraged the march to go on so that he would have a reason to sign the voting rights bill, and King had serious misgivings about making the march.

Regardless, the film is a powerful portrayal of the event. The televising of the beatings by the police at the initial attempt at the march inspired a mass of people, black and white, to converge on Selma. The multi-racial throng provided a dramatic and inspiring conclusion to the film.

The Selma-to-Montgomery march and the ensuing voting rights and immigration bills represented a monumental victory for people of color in this country. In viewing “Selma,” API people can admire the courage to took bring it about. Consider the change in the racial composition of this country, and more particularly, Southern California. This would not have happened if this march had not taken place 50 years ago.

Phil Shigekuni writes from San Fernando Valley and can be contacted at The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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