Martin Luther King, Jr. the civil rights movement, and the AAPI community’s fight for justice

6 min readJan 21, 2019

The AAPI community greatly benefited from the activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his ensuing legacy in the civil rights movement. We carry his mantle as we continue fighting for the agency of AAPI women and girls over our lives, our families, and our communities.

Credit: Jama Abdirahman/The Seattle Globalist

Lately, I have been contemplating the critical importance of AAPI activism in a time when we still lack the agency to make decisions about our lives, our families, and our communities. What arose out of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sacrifices for people of color, and what do AAPIs owe to Black activists in the past and present? As I do so, I feel a deep gratitude to Dr. King and the civil rights movement. It was Black activism that fought for all communities of color — including AAPIs — to participate in activism, fight for justice for our communities, and show our collective power through voting. Dr. King and his fellow activists put their bodies and lives on the line, marching, protesting, and getting involved in political activism at a time when even the U.S. government opposed them.

In the words of aboriginal activist and academic Lilla Watson, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” As AAPIs, we know that we do not walk alone — we walk alongside other activists of color who have lifted us up at every step of the way.

We have the civil rights movement to thank for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which helped win power for the AAPI community by allowing us to exercise our power through voting. In that same year, after a significant push by civil rights movement. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished racial quotas and reopened several paths to immigration, allowing millions of immigrants from Asia to come to the United States to create new lives for themselves and their families. Prior to that, the government had successfully barred our communities from starting new lives in the US by enforcing several pieces of racist and xenophobic legislation, including the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The civil rights movement was the spark that inspired a larger AAPI activist movement. It wasn’t long after that the world was introduced to fierce AAPI women like Grace Lee Boggs, Yuri Kochiyama, Ninotchka Rosca, and Helen Zia. These amazing women, many who worked closely with allies in the civil rights movement, paved the way for us. They stood beside Black activists like Malcolm X and Dr. King, fought for integrated education, and raised awareness and public outrage over the lynching of Vincent Chin. In doing so, they not only shattered myths and stereotypes about Asian American women — but demonstrated the collective power of our communities. They set this example so that AAPI women and girls today are aware of the history of our shared struggle for liberation, and know that they, too, have power to harness the strength of their communities to create radical change.

There is urgent need for this change. The AAPI community still grapples with securing our vision for justice, which continues to be denied to us. For AAPI women specifically, this means still having to combat efforts to invisibilize us at all levels of society. We continue to fight for equal pay, and have to work an extra three months on average to match the annual salary of a white man — and the disparity is significantly larger for several AAPI communities like Southeast Asian American women, Pacific Islander women, and refugee women. For instance, Hmong and Indonesian American women earn on average 59 cents and 67 cents to the white male dollar, respectively. What’s worse, much of this is obscured by the model minority myth, which has dealt severe damage to our community by falsely touting all Asian Americans as successful and financially stable.

Likewise, justice and equity were values denied to AAPI women like Purvi Patel and Bei Bei Shuai, who were criminalized due to the selective enforcement of laws originally meant to protect pregnant individuals and imprisoned for their pregnancy outcomes. I remember fighting to overturn the conviction of Purvi Patel, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison on a charge of feticide — the first time a feticide law was used to convict the mother herself. I joined other AAPI community members to take a bus from Chicago to Indianapolis to support Purvi at her appeal hearing in the Indiana Statehouse. Standing outside the courthouse with dozens of women of color advocates, we waited with bated breath to hear if the courts would defend or condemn Purvi for having simply made a decision about her body. The power of that moment has stayed with me since, and I think about it today as I remember Dr. King’s vision for a just world where people of color have agency over our lives, our families, and our communities.

We have also long grappled with a narrative about immigrants that has failed to recognize the experiences of the AAPI community. Under the Trump Administration, hundreds of Vietnamese and Cambodian Americans have been deported, and many more Vietnamese War refugees are at risk now that the administration has failed to uphold our country’s agreement with the government of Vietnam. As we’ve documented with the Southeast Asia Resource and Action Center, the effects of detention and deportation on Southeast Asian American women and their families are severe. We’ve also heard stories from AAPI youth like DACA recipient and Rhodes Scholar Jin Park, who had the courage to seek higher education at the risk of not being able to return to this country. Without collective power, those currently in power will seek to ensure that we remain unheard and unnamed.

The agency and wellbeing of AAPI women and girls, and the AAPI community at large, are on the line. Over the last few years alone, we have found ourselves fighting racist sex-selective abortion bans, pushing back against microaggressions and stereotypes that contribute to sexual assault for AAPI women, raising awareness of the effects of detention and deportation on our communities, and advocating for data disaggregation and greater visibility for our community. Even though it seems like there’s a new fight every day, we remain steadfast in our resolve to address these issues directly and fight for our own liberation.

What’s more, the Trump Administration has continued and even escalated its attacks on all communities of color. From the Muslim Ban to referring to Mexicans as “rapists,” the hatred spewed by the administration has given white supremacists license to spread racism and has led to a rise in hate crimes — directly placing the lives of so many people of color at risk. Just as AAPIs developed solidarity with members of the civil rights movement decades ago, we must now remember to continue building power and finding strength fighting alongside other communities of color.

When I reflect on the legacy of Dr. King, I hold close his commitment to fighting injustice. As Dr. King once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” To that end, AAPIs must also recognize our role in dismantling the structures that silence all communities of color. This means speaking up and fighting back even if our own community isn’t directly affected — and we can start by calling out anti-blackness within our own communities and being cognizant of internalized racism and colorism. AAPIs’ collective power can play a significant role in disrupting existing systems of oppression.

AAPIs are building power to fight for justice and to root out intolerance whenever we experience it in our lives — and NAPAWF will proudly keep leading the way for AAPI women and girls, thanks to the foundation that Dr. King and the civil rights movement helped build for us all those years ago.

Sung Yeon Choimorrow is the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the nation’s only organization dedicated to building power with Asian American Pacific Islander women and girls. You can follow her on Twitter at @schoimorrow.




NAPAWF is focused on building power with AAPI women and girls to influence critical decisions that affect our lives, our families and our communities.