The Most Influential Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Activists

There’s no question that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) have made incredible strides in recent years. But what often goes under-recognized is the role that activists have played in shaping our community and paving the way for future generations. In homage to these inspiring individuals, today we’re highlighting some of the most influential AAPIs in history. Whether they fought for civil rights or championed causes like education and social justice, these activists have left an undeniable mark on our community. So please join us as we celebrate their accomplishments and remember everything they’ve done to make AAPI’s voice more robust than ever.

Welcome to the history of Asian American activism! In this course, you’ll learn about the rich history of Asian American activists fighting for justice and equality. We’ll explore the stories of brave individuals who fought against discrimination, racism, and xenophobia. You’ll also learn about the different ways Asian Americans have organized to make a change. This course is perfect for anyone interested in learning more about Asian American history and culture or anyone looking for inspiration to make a change in their community. So join us on this journey as we explore the history of Asian American activism.

Filipino Americans Settle In Louisiana

From the year 1765 and into the 1800s, Filipino sailors known as “Malaysians” jumped on board the Gulf of Mexico as crew or indentured servants. They established the first Filipino American communities in the region. During their time as a Manila-man, the Manila-men had eight settlements in the bayous of Louisiana.

California’s ‘coolie trade’ ban

The Congressional Act prohibiting “coolie trades of American citizens on American vessels” put China’s exclusion in the center of the civil war’s political debate. During the 1830s coolie trade was based around the 19th century and developed to the extent that indentured African workers were distributed to plantations where enslaved black Africans were previously occupied. Coolies were considered an appropriate replacement for enslaved labor when the Atlantic slave trade was deregulated.

United States vs. Wong Kim Ark

Portraits by Kim Ark, 1904. Wong Kim Ark was born in California in 1873 to Chinese parents in China. After returning to Beijing in 1895, immigration authorities denied the re-immigration. Wong claimed. However, he was entitled to remain an American citizen. Birthright citizenship is governed by Constitution 14, which was passed shortly after the Civil War. In its earliest stages, birthright citizenship was intended for Africans, especially formerly slaves.

Chinese businessmen boycott American goods

In 1905 businesses from Shanghai and China organized boycotts of US goods. The racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1965 prevented Chinese workers from entering the US. Still, immigration officials frequently turned away Chinese immigrants whom the legislation allowed into America — traders, students, and diplomats — and smuggled them to other countries. The boycott aims at removing Chinese nationalists from this challenging position. This boycott helped bring about some improvement in Chinese migrants, but it ultimately failed in 1906.

California passes the Alien Land Act

In the spring of 1913, California state assemblies passed an Act prohibiting the unauthorized holder of agricultural property. The law was amended. While this racial category of immigrants is deemed unconstitutionally unaffected by the United Nations Convention on Human Rights, the architect of this bill specifically considered Japan. Many Californian politicians had hoped the Japanese would gain upward social mobility, and they were worried the settlers could not become independent landowners.

Relocation offices open in Chicago

Most students can learn something about the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in World War II. One hundred twelve thousand were taken away, lost jobs, incomes, and savings were confined in desolate inland camps operated by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), and suffered many deaths. During and after the war — Japanese Americans escaped from their camp in the Pacific. Infuriated by blatantly undemocratic incarceration, prosecutors advocated the release of those held in a state of indecent assimilation.

Impact of Internment

Like Oshi, several civil liberties workers in Asia America were Japanese American internment or their children. The decision by Roosevelt to enroll nearly 10 million Japanese American soldiers to encamp during World War II had adverse effects. Forced Japanese people into the camps to prove their authenticity by adulation but faced discrimination. It seems risky for some Japanese Americans when speaking publicly about their racial bias.

Delano Grape Strike

Following anti-Asian immigration laws imposed by Congress in the late 1800s, massive unemployment in Hawaii resulted in massive unemployment. Filipinas could be allowed into the US freely despite the status of colonization. Labor recruiters flocked to the most poverty-prone areas in the Philippines for cheap labor. Around a quarter billion Filipinos arrive in west coast ports yearly.

The Birth Of Yellow Power

By watching blacks exposed to institutional racism in the US government, they became increasingly aware of the discriminatory practices they faced. In 1969 Amy Uyematsu wrote an essay titled “The Emergence of Yellow Power.” Black activism played the most significant role in initiating the African American Civil Rights Movement, but Black radicalism also affected Asian people. Black activists frequently use the writings of Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong.

Students’ efforts

Campuses provide fertile ground. Asian Americans have started organizations, including Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) and Asians Concerned from California University. Several American University of California students have also founded the right-wing magazine Gidra. AAPA has branch offices at Yale and Columbia across the east coasts. Asian students have been incorporated at universities across the Midwest, including the Universite Illinois Oberlin College and the Universite Michigan. In addition to colleges, groups like I Worstkuen and Asia Americans Against Violence are formed on the East Coast.

When black and Latin Americans began sharing their oppression experiences, indignation replaced fear over its consequences. Asians were demanding an academic program representative of their history. Activists also tried to discourage gentrification by destroying Asian-American neighborhoods as a significant problem in America.

Top Asian American Activists

Despite becoming the focal point of numerous movements, Asian and Pacific Islanders have often been overlooked or neglected in many respects. Discover ten influential Asian American Pacific Islanders who worked hard for marginalized people:

Haunani-Kay Trask

Born to a family advocating Hawaii’s independence, Haunani-Kay Trask fought in opposition and for freedom for her people. Trask was born on September 25, 1949, a decade before Hawaii became a nation. While she spent several years on the mainland while enrolled at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Chicago, Trask concentrated on her native country and preserving indigenous Hawaiian cultural heritage. Her return to the USA led to teaching at the University of Hawaii at Hawaii Manoa, focusing on Polynesian females, the politics of Hawaii, and the Pacific islands.

Kiyoshi Kuromiya

Born in an interned camp in Wyoming, Kiyoshi Kuromiya helped organize several groups relating personally to him. Kuromiyan focused on anti-war, civil rights, and gay liberation struggles for most of his career. He sat at numerous significant protests, including the Washington and Montgomery, Alabama marches. In 1965, he accompanied students from Black High School who participated in the 1965 voter registration march. Four years later, Kuromiya established the gay liberation front in Philadelphia and was also delegated to the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention.

Philip Vera Cruz

He focused his campaigning on his own life experiences: farming. Following his arrival in the Philippines, Vera Cruz moved with his family to the USA. He worked on a farm in California, eventually picking grapes, lettuce, and asparagus under strict circumstances. It also led Vera Cruz to organize the Delana Grape Strikes in 1965, demanding an additional 10 cents an hour. The activist remained in the united farmer union he formed and was a member of for several years and became an officer in Agbayani villages later in the year.

Larry Itliong

Julio Hernandez Larry Itliong and Cesar Chavez during Huelgal Day March 1966. A key player in the farm labor movement, Larry Itliong first came to America in his teenage years and soon began calling for more protections. Born in the Philippines, Itliong remained a natural militant whose actions grew out when traveling through the different states to advocate for himself. Itliong spent time in Alaska, Washington, and finally California, where he met fellow activist Cesar Chavez.

Frank Emery

Although Emery was born on American soil, the two families of Japanese descent were forced to move to a Japanese internment camp during World War II. There Frank started a movement. He was relocated to an area in Wyoming to confront some of the questions a lawyer had to answer in a loyalty questionnaire. Both reaffirmed their willingness to serve as combat troops and asked Japanese men who came to America to pledge utter devotion to the United States.

George Takei

George Takei 2016 photo: Andrew Lehodynsky. J/Toronto Star via Getty. The Takeis’ hard life ended after that, as the men were not equipped with the necessary capital and were forced into living in Los Angeles’ Skid Row, a neighborhood famous for a vast homeless population. Takei continued their studies by attending the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Los Angeles, to obtain a bachelor’s degree and master’s.

Fred Korematsu

Frédéric Korematsu fought for Japanese internment at the United States Supreme Court. Korematsu was born in Oakland, California, to Japanese parents. World War II began at 22, and he refused later to visit the Tanforan Assembly Centre. Korematsu was arrested in 1942 in response to a mandatory evacuation order.

Yuri Kochiyama

Yuri Kochiyama’s activism began in the Japanese internment camp, where she grew pride in her roots. After an idyllic childhood in California, Kochiyama changed their life after being charged with a conspiracy against the government and held for six weeks. The rest of their relatives were sent to the camps shortly before death.


That’s it for our exploration of Asian American activism history. Be sure to check out the other posts in this series, and if there are any activists you think we missed or would like us to cover in more depth, let us know! In the meantime, keep up the good work — your community needs you.

Originally published at on July 15, 2022.



Avid reader and activist

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store