AAPI Heritage Month: Early Pioneers in Equality

AAPI Heritage Month: Early Pioneers in Equality image
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With AAPI Heritage month upon us, this post recognizes the challenges this group has overcome to help make basic fundamental rights available for all.

Diversity and respect are fundamental. The resiliency and sustainability of our planet is tied to air, land, and water, and also to the health of our communities, preservation and protection of our cultural milieu, and well-being of every human being.

This post recognizes the challenges this group has overcome to help make basic fundamentals available for all. 

With AAPI Heritage month upon us, this ongoing series highlights the contributions the AAPI community has made to California and U.S. history, from early pioneering of civil rights, to the food we eat, to the culture that has influenced our everyday lives.  

Our first blog begins with the struggle for equality and civil rights for all people. Many civil rights precedents of U.S. Constitution, such as citizenship for children born on American soil and equal treatment under the law, were established through the legal struggle against discrimination by Asian-Americans such as Californian trailblazers Wong Kim Ark, Lee Yick, and Fred Korematsu. The topic of civil rights and Asian Americans is best set in the standpoint of a history of discrimination, where it concerns several issues of barriers and injustice. As we dive into the civil rights perspective, it is also important to take a look at the workplace and the fight for fair labor conditions for migrant workers.

Civil Rights

Established in 1868 following the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed that children born in the U.S. would be U.S. citizens regardless of their parent’s citizenship status. At the same time, hostility towards Chinese workers ran high throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century in California. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned the immigration of Chinese laborers into the U.S (U.S. State Department 2010). Despite being born in San Francisco in the early 1870s, Wong Kim Ark found himself detained at the port of San Francisco in 1894 after a short visit to China. Although he had previously visited China in 1890 and returned to the U.S. without incident, the Collectors of Customs in San Francisco denied Wong reentry, claiming that he was a Chinese subject because his parents were Chinese.


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Sworn statement of witnesses verifying departure statement of Wong Kim Ark, November 2, 1894.

Confined for five months off the coast of San Francisco, Wong filed a legal challenge to the state’s refusal to recognize his birth claim to U.S. citizenship. While local and lower-level courts upheld the citizenship status of children born in the U.S. to alien parents, the Supreme Court had never deliberated the issue. Wong’s case went from the San Francisco district court all the way to the Supreme Court. In a landmark decision in 1898, the Court upheld Wong’s status as a U.S. citizen by virtue of his birthright. This decision ensconced U.S. citizenship for children of all immigrants – in fact, anyone born on U.S. soil – regardless of their ethnicity and remains a cornerstone of citizenship today.

Another hallmark of the Fourteenth Amendment, the right to equal protection and treatment under the law, was also fought through the courts by the AAPI community. In 1880, the city of San Francisco passed a law requiring laundry businesses to obtain a permit if they were operating out of a wooden building. At the time, 240 of the roughly 320 laundries in the city were Chinese-owned and operated out of wooden buildings. Yet only 1 permit was granted to Chinese laundries while other applicants received permits easily.

In an era where anti-Chinese cartoons appeared daily in newspapers and repercussions from local police were common, business-owner Lee Yick continued to run his business and was subsequently fined and imprisoned. He successfully sued the city for discrimination in denying him and the Chinese community permits to operate, creating a legal precedent for anti-discrimination and fair treatment under the Fourteenth Amendment. The landmark Yick Wo case, which has been cited by the Supreme Court over 150 times, has become the higher court’s long-standing basis regarding “interracial marriage, segregated schools, segregation in housing, voting rights, disability rights, gender discrimination, and most recently in recognizing gay marriage.”


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Fred Korematsu with Rosa Parks. Photo by Shirley Nakao. Korematsu Institute. Date unknown.


Despite this legal precedent, more than 120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry, 62% of which were U.S. citizens, were forcibly removed from their homes and interned in camps across California and the Western United States following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Many lost their land, property, and livelihood, which they could not recover after the War. Fred Korematsu opposed the blanket suspicion, defamation, and internment of Japanese-Americans. Korematsu made his case to the U.S. Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court but was convicted for refusing the internment order. His wartime struggle began to bear fruit in 1976 when President Gerald Ford formally apologized for Japanese internment during World War II. Korematsu was further vindicated in 1983 when the U.S. District Court in San Francisco lifted his conviction. He was honored in 1998 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, joining a long list of civil rights leaders from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King Jr. 

aapi rally Asian American Advancing Justice Asian Law Caucus joint rally for immigrant rights


Today, the Asian American Advancing Justice Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco continues the work and legacy of Wong Kim Ark, Lee Yick, and Fred Korematsu, providing legal counsel and outreach for civil rights, immigrant rights, and workers’ rights. Visit their website for more information on their work.

Labor Rights

Historically, the fight for fair labor conditions for migrant workers closely coincides with the fight for civil rights. For many years, a large community of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino workers were the backbone of Agricultural farm work in California. In the 1960s, the Filipino American community, galvanized by Larry “Seven Fingers” Itliong, started a one of many labor strikes in Northern California centered around low wages, poor treatment, and abysmal working conditions. To improve their working conditions, Filipino workers would strike. When the work force would strike, farm management would replace the workers with migrant Mexican workers. When Mexican migrant workers would strike, Filipino workers would be hired. It was a cycle of rotating and replacing workers without changes to the working conditions. Itliong and Cesar Chavez both understood that in order to impact real change, both communities would have to work together towards the same goals.  


aapi chavez itliong

Cesar Chavez and Larry Itliong


As a result, Itliong approached Chavez to work as a joint labor force to eliminate the rivalry between the Filipino and Mexican workers. They were joined by the Mexican American farm workers and the Delano Grape Strike began in earnest. Through years of effort, in the form of marches and strikes, the Delano Grape Strike led to the passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. This established for the first time the right to collective bargaining for the farmworkers. It is meant to "to ensure peace in the agricultural fields by guaranteeing justice for all agricultural workers and stability in labor relations.”

The strikes in California had far reaching effects across the country. Around this time, in New York’s Chinatown, Chinese Americans began a series of labor rights campaigns in an effort to bring equality in hiring to their neighborhood. As large construction was planned in Chinatown, the Chinese labor force was not considered when filling jobs. The Asian Americans for Equal Employment organized the local Asian community, leading to an agreement by the development company to give construction jobs to Asian workers. These types of protests were unconventional at the time from an Asian American population thought mostly to be silent. The show of concerted organization and strength in the community proved otherwise. The Asian Americans for Equal Employment renamed themselves to Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) in an effort to wholly encompass the needs of the Asian community. 


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1974, Image from Asian Americans for Equality


Today, the struggle to bring balance and fair working conditions continues. Ai-jen Poo is the co-founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a group dedicated to advocating for domestic workers. The National Domestic Workers Alliance is focused on ending the exploitation of this labor force, of which a large number are minority women. Led by Poo the group has passed the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in nine states. Poo continues to be a tireless champion for women, starting advocacy groups as recent as 2019.


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Domestic Workers Alliance march, date unknown, Image from Innovate Podcast


The triumphs of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are highlighted by strength, a passion for justice, and a willingness to work with other minority communities to combat racism and unfair working conditions. As we celebrate the diversity within the AAPI community and explore the multi-faceted connections of the AAPI community’s influence on American history and culture, we will continue to highlight a closer look at the struggle for labor rights, matters on environmental justice, immigration and resiliency, and all things relating to culture. 

Interested in learning more? You can find curated resources here that support the AAPI community and organizations. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of ADEC Innovations, and/or any/all contributors to this site.


This article was a collaborative effort from members of our AAPI group.

Melissa Ramirez. Melissa recently joined the FCS Publishing Department as a Word Processing and Document Specialist. She is responsible for formatting, word processing, and assembling FCS’ technical reports, environmental analysis documents, proposals, and other internal- and external-facing client deliverables. Melissa has more than 10 years’ experience in legal services and document review.

Yiu Kam. As Lead Creative, Yiu is responsible for the art direction of both the ADEC ESG Solutions and FCS business units’ marketing strategies. He enjoys collaborating with a great team of marketing professionals to creatively connect the dots between our company and their customers. Yiu juggles in-house design needs with external-facing client projects daily. As Visual Simulations lead at FCS, Yiu utilizes 3D modeling to empower clients and communities to “see” new projects before they’re approved. Yiu also works closely with the ESG Professional Services team to help companies publish science-based and graphic-rich Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Reports.

About the author

Ti Ngo

Ti Ngo thumbnail

Ti Ngo is a historian and cultural resource analyst for FirstCarbon Solutions. After graduating from the University of Chicago with a BA in history, he worked and lived in Japan before moving to California to complete his MA at the University of California, Berkeley. In researching and writing technical reports, he works with clients to ensure that projects mitigate the impact to cultural resources and adhere to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). He is passionate about preserving the legacy of California's past while providing a bridge to build its future.

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