Mervyn Dymally


Name Mervyn Dymally
Born May 12 1926
Died October 7 2012
Birth Location Cedros, Trinidad

African-American and Asian-American Democratic politician who championed redress for Japanese Americans.

Mervyn Malcolm Dymally was born in Cedros, Trinidad, in 1926, of mixed African and East Indian ancestry. While in Trinidad, Dymally worked as a staff reporter for The Vanguard , a newspaper published by the Trinidad Oilfield Workers Trade Union. He moved to the United States at the close of World War II, and proceeded to study journalism at the all-black Lincoln University in Missouri. Several years later, after moving to California, he returned to school at Los Angeles State College (now California State University, Los Angeles). After graduation, Dymally worked for several years as a teacher of handicapped children in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He then worked as assistant chief of the Federal Assistance Division of the California Disaster Office.

Dymally embarked on a political career at the dawn of the 1960s. His first important involvement came in 1960, when he served as a field coordinator for John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign in California. In 1962, he won a seat in the California State Assembly, representing the area around Watts. During his tenure, he sponsored multiple antidiscrimination bills. Four years later, he was elected to the state Senate. In 1974, he was elected lieutenant governor of California—thereby becoming the first African-American to hold that position. After being defeated for re-election in 1978, Dymally briefly left politics, and the following year completed a Ph.D. from United States International University (now known as Alliant International University) in San Diego. In 1980, he returned to political life and was elected to Congress in 1980 from California's 31st District, representing Hawthorne, Compton, Torrance, Gardena, and other areas of Los Angeles County.

From the outset of his political career, Dymally was sensitive to the injustices facing Japanese Americans. In 1966, following the Watts uprising of the previous year, California legislators enacted a bill making it a crime to "incite" any riot. Dymally, referring to Executive Order 9066 , condemned the bill as reflecting a "mood of hysteria similar to when the Japanese were expelled from the state." Similarly, in early 1982, Dymally wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times deploring the Reagan Administration's detention camps for Haitian refugees as "shockingly reminiscent" of the wartime internment of Japanese Americans.

Once he was elected to Congress, representing a district that included the heavily Japanese American city of Gardena, California, Dymally became active in promoting reparations for former camp inmates. In October 1982, following the hearings of the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians , Dymally announced his intention to introduce legislation for reparations, based on the model of legislation proposed by the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (NCRR). He ultimately introduced a pair of bills. The first, which resembled one previously introduced by Washington state Congressman Mike Lowry , provided funding for individual reparations of $25,000 for former inmates. The second provided $3 billion to Japanese communities for health care, education, housing, and business loans. Dymally obtained Congressional Black Caucus approval for the bills. He meanwhile offered NCRR members facilities in his Congressional office for lobbying and other organizational work, hosted receptions for them, and hired Japanese American staffers.

In August 1984, Dymally was the lead congressional witness at a U.S. Senate hearing on redress legislation introduced by Senator Spark Matsunaga . The following year, Dymally spoke at a Day of Remembrance event in Gardena, and went on a well-publicized tour of Manzanar during the annual pilgrimage . He stated "To me, Manzanar is symbolic of the whole concentration camp experience of the Japanese American people during World War II…This is a place where history was made." In addition to seeking support for redress, he added, "I am also going to Manazanar because I would like to bring this experience and this issue to the greater consciousness of the American people." [1]

In 1987, in tribute to his prestige in Congress, Mervyn Dymally was elected chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. However, Dymally's activism on redress was by no means universally popular among African Americans. According to Nisei congressman Robert Matsui , most members of the CBC, despite their endorsement of the Dymally bills, were slow to warm to the issue of redress on the grounds that African Americans should have priority on reparations for slavery.

During this period, Dymally was also forced to contend with anger in the Black community over the discriminatory statements and actions of officials and businesses in Japan. In 1986, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone asserted in a speech that Japan's educational success was due to the country's racial and cultural uniformity, while education in the United States was retarded by the presence of "Blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans." Although outraged by the statement, Dymally attempted to use diplomacy to repair the damage. Dymally led a group of black leaders on a tour of Japan. He also lobbied Japanese companies and organizations to assist African Americans.

However, in 1988, Michio Watanabe, a former finance and trade minister (and future deputy prime minster), publicly charged that, unlike Japanese, Black Americans were nonchalant about declaring bankruptcy. Dymally organized a press conference with his colleagues in which they challenged the Japanese government to act forcefully to curb racial bias against Blacks, and threatened boycotts of Japanese goods. Dymally stated, "The black leadership is angry. We've tried to have a conciliatory approach, and gotten nothing. Now civil rights groups are going to get involved, and they are not going to have quiet meetings, and nice teas and visits to Japan." He was careful to make clear the distinction between Japanese Americans, whose support he welcomed, and Japanese. Two Nisei members of Congress, Robert Matsui and Norman Mineta , joined the CBC in publicly denouncing Tokyo's actions, even as NCRR members and other Japanese Americans in Los Angeles sponsored a protest at the local Japanese consulate. Dymally ultimately succeeded in persuading the Japanese government to offer an official apology for Watanabe's comments. In 1990 the Hitachi company contributed $5,000 to a scholarship fund in Dymally's name at a Los Angeles community center.

In August 1988, Congress approved the Civil Liberties Act , which provided an official apology and a $20,000 redress payment to each person of Japanese ancestry who had been affected by Executive Order 9066. Four years later, Rep. Dymally left Congress. In 2002, following a decade-long absence from political life, he was again elected to the California State Assembly, where he had begun his elected career four decades earlier, and served three terms before retiring at age 80. He died on October 7, 2012.

Mervyn M. Dymally was one of the strongest Congressional advocates of Japanese American redress, and his support brought the movement an additional measure of visibility and legitimacy.

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Robinson, Greg. "The Paradox of Reparations: Japanese Americans and African Americans at the Crossroads of Alliance and Conflict." In Greg Robinson and Robert S. Chang, eds. Minority Relations: Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation . Oxford, Miss., University Press of Mississippi, 2016. 159–87.

———. The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches . Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2016.

Simmonds, Yussuf. "Mervyn Dymally: A Political Icon." Los Angeles Sentinel , December 4, 2008 (2 parts).

Footnotes

  1. “Cong. Dymally to Make Manzanar Pilgrimage,” Los Angeles Sentinel , April 25, 1985, A8.