See Delta Ministry Founded in
Mississippi for background & more information.
Childhood Integrating the Hattiesburg Swimming Pool Chinese Exclusion Acts Being Scared Growing Up in Chinatown Jackson Protest Being a Minority in America Meredith Mississippi March Against Fear Hastings College The Beeches A Renegade Mother Effect of the Movement on My Life Joining the Delta Ministry in Hattiesburg, MS Women in Chinatown Living With Mrs. Sims Family Reaction to Civil Rights Involvement Back Home in San Francisco After Leaving the South Missing the Movement and Staying Connected Hong Kong "Marion, You've Changed" Opposing the Vietnam War Black or White? An Asian Women in the U.S. Life in the Black Community Marriage Delta Ministry in Hattiesburg Racism in the Chinese Community
Bruce: Why don't you talk about your beginnings?
Marion: I was born in San Francisco. I grew up in Chinatown, San Francisco's Chinatown. [In the late '40s and '50s] I went through public schools there, and when I say "public schools" — the schools that are near Chinatown, I would say 99% of the kids that I went to school with until I went to middle school, they were all Chinese.
Bruce: But instruction was in English?
Marion: Instruction was in English. All the teachers were American, English speakers. And after grammar school, I would go home for a quick snack, and then my brothers and sisters and I would go off to Chinese school. And Chinese school is like maybe five blocks away. And that would be like for about two hours or so, and then we would be going back home for dinner and homework. So that was the way I was raised. I was mainly insulated in Chinatown.
Bruce: What did you study in Chinese school?
Marion: Chinese grammar, reading and writing.
Chude: Could you speak English before you went to school?
Marion: My first language was Chinese.
Bruce: And that would be Cantonese?
Marion: That would be Cantonese.
Marion: My father was a merchant. He was able to migrate to the United States because of his status. Otherwise, he would've had a hard time. And so he ended up being a baker at a very well known bakery in Chinatown. Let's see, my mother had already a daughter, my oldest sister, in China, and [my mother] was pregnant when she arrived at Angel Island, and she was detained there for a number of weeks. She had to be cleared before she was able to get to San Francisco. So I'm one of the very unique families that still can talk about — a member detained there — my mother, although she didn't talk about it, but we knew from the records that she was detained there.
Bruce: What do you mean detained? Detained why?
Marion: Detained. This is the history of Angel Island, that the Chinese were not allowed into the country. There were other emigrants immigrating from other countries, over 80 countries in all. I think the Chinese made up at least 70% of the people detained there. Only one other immigrant group, South Asian Sikhs, had a higher rate of rejection than the Chinese and they were only 8% to the Chinese population registered there. The manner of interrogation to challenge and discourage in particular Chinese families from entering the United States — men, women and children alike — was later found to be unjustifiably unfair; this was repeated much the same way later, when Negroes were unjustifiably interrogated at voter registrations in the South to discourage them from voting.
Chude: Are we talking about the '40s?
Marion: The Immigration Station there opened in 1910 and closed late 1940 because of a fire there.
Chude: Before the Communist takeover of China?
Marion: And yes, there's a connection. The connection was that all the wars and internal political strife and revolts in China — from the opium wars with Britain to the final end of China's last dynasty in 1911, then later Communism. So famine, wars and revolts brought many Chinese to America when word came that there was gold there. The biggest connection had to be the Gold Rush. And the Chinese were at first welcome, but there was a lot of backlash and a lot of massacres and a lot of discrimination against the Chinese working the gold mines and then subsequently on the railroads. So because of a lot of backlash, they were trying to prevent the Chinese from entering anymore. And the biggest problem was denying wives from reuniting, denying children from reuniting. And so you had generations of bachelors, Chinese bachelors in Chinatown. But my father was lucky. After all this happened, he was a merchant, and he was one of the classes that was exempt from being denied entry.
Bruce: So this was occurring after World War II?
Marion: This was occurring before, during and after WWII. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, later re-created as the "Asiatic Exclusion," wasn't finally abolished until 1965! Congress renewed the Exclusion indefinitely until then. I often think that in 1965 — the Civil Rights Bill just passed in 1964 — that the civil rights movement may have had an influence in finally abolishing this Act.
The first Chinese Exclusion Act was in 1882. And it was the first and only time in the history of the United States that it singled out a single race from being admitted. And then it got renewed three different times to 1943, then revised many more times until 1965. So it just went on and on. So [there were] long absences and years and years of separation between families have been reported. There were people I know that didn't see their children for 13 years or 30 years. So it's a long separation.
[The Chinese Exclusion Acts were a complex series of federal and state laws that restricted both immigration and citizenship-eligibility by all Asians, not just those from China. Asian women were particularly targeted and were often denied entry or forcibly later deported in order to prevent Asian children from being born on U.S. soil and thus automatically becoming American citizens. During the Second World War, the exclusion acts began to be repealed in order to assist the war effort. The last vestiges of the acts were not repealed until 1965. In addition to its own state-level immigrant exclusion acts, California also enacted an anti-miscegenation law that prohibited "All marriages of white persons with Negroes, Mongolians, members of the Malay race, or mulattos," a law that was not overturned until 1948. Angel Island — often referred to as the "Ellis Island of the West" — was the main West coast point of entry for Asians.]
Chude: An important historical aside is that the California legislators used to team up with the Southern legislators for racist federal legislation. People don't usually think about that or know that, that the anti-Black sentiment in the South and the anti-Asian sentiment here worked together.
Marion: Yes, because of the Reconstruction period and the war, the Civil War was — I mean, there was all this happening in the United States. At the same time, in the middle of all this, of course the Native Americans were still being separated, and kids were separated from the reservations to outside Indian schools. And slavery was still pretty much in action, even after the Civil War, and we all know that.
Bruce: In the form of sharecropping and tenant farming and stuff like that.
Marion: Yeah, yeah, and even if slavery was abolished, it still kept going. And we have all these laws against, and I think the slaves — I understand they had to wear tags or have some paper with them when they leave their plantations. And all these ways of dealing with slavery, with the Native American Indians and with the African-Americans, African slaves, the way the government reacted was the same way that they decided they were going to do with the Chinese. So there's a lot of similarities, if you look at it.
Chude: But was there any feeling when you were growing up of connection with these other groups?
Marion: No. As I said, I grew up in Chinatown very much because of a need to protect ourselves from the American way of life which was often hostile and unfriendly. And so I was sort of insulated from other races, more or less.
Marion: The only time, ironically, that I saw a lot of races was when I was out the door and on the streets, and I become a tourist object. And Chinatown is a very strange way of advertising Chinatown to the rest of the world. Of course, to attract tourism and to get money for the city, you have to look at all the things that attract people — tourist gift shops. The stores that used to be grocery stores, pharmacies, herb houses, were all Chinese-oriented on Grant Avenue. Now, when you walk out and you get to Chinatown, you don't see any of that. You have to go up to another block, up to Stockton Street, to buy anything, because there are no groceries on Grant Avenue anymore.
[Historically, Grant Avenue was Chinatown's main street. Over time it was made over to attract tourists rather than serve the needs of the resident Chinese immigrants.]
My apartment was right on Grant Avenue, so I'm in the heart of everything. So as soon as I get out of my building, people would stare at us, and I become something to be looked at. People ask me, "Where are the best restaurants?" And I say, "I don't know. I don't go to restaurants. I eat at home." So there's a big dichotomy between what it is to be Chinese and what it is to be looked at as a Chinese.
And I think that that has been a real problem to this day about what it is to be Chinese American. For the longest time we were not out there poltiically. African-Americans are out there. Latinos, Chicanos are out there. But very few notions of what it really is to be an Asian. Now its changing! We're definitely out there.
Marion: But going back to why I'm here, my connection I think with the Civil Rights Movement, once I made that connection, it was very clear for me. I knew what it was to be a minority, and I had an instant empathy and sensitivity to what it is to be Black. But when you go down to the Deep South, for the rest of us who are Northerners, we also have an additional culture shock. But it's not a minority shock; it's a culture shock. To me, the Civil Rights Movement — I've never seen it as a race issue, but everybody else does. I don't see it as a race card; I see it as a class card.
Being a minority means something negative in the United States. It means that you're poor. It means that you're deprived of every basic necessity, that every human being deserves: everyone deserves a shelter, deserves food in their stomach, they deserve medicine when they're sick, they deserve an education. And these are the basic needs that every human being on the face of this earth needs, and we don't have it. And when I went down South, I was very familiar with it.
But I was not familiar with what the Blacks had to go through. And what I was not prepared for was not having any roots. No heritage, nothing to claim, because your foundation was not given to you. When you're a slave, everything was uprooted. There's a difference between slavery as your beginning in the United States — there's a difference between that forced entry — and immigration. In immigration, you have some feeling of control. You know that you're going to be emigrating, and you make preparations. You pack your suitcase, or you pack a duffel bag. You get to say goodbye. You get to bring your "roots" with you wherever you go.
Even if you're given the wrong information, and you're coerced when you're in China into prostitution, and the way that happened was you're a young girl, and you're told, "Oh, you're going to make so much money, and so-and-so is going to take care of you." So you get on the ship, but you end up being a prostitute which you didn't want to, but at least you were not kidnapped the same way. That was horrible but you were not erased from a country. Your racial identity was not erased for 250 years. That was the difference.
And I can see it, still to this day. You can't erase trauma like that. But for me, even though I'm a minority in the United States, I'm not a minority in the world. I'm actually a majority. If you're looking at race, you're talking about Chinese and women, I am actually a majority on this earth. But in the United States, I'm way in the bottom. And so it's a matter of perspective, but it's also important for me to have understood how we got here to the United States, and that, I think, says a lot about our struggles. So I'm being very philosophical, but it's the way I saw the South when I went down there.
Marion: Being stuck in Chinatown, in your late 'teens, like most of us, we get a little restless, and I really wanted to leave. I wanted to know what it's like to be outside of San Francisco. I did not even know where Sausalito was, because I was really protected by not leaving the confines of safety. And so it wasn't until my college years when I went to City College of San Francisco, a community college — actually, after graduation from college, I ended up working at the City College of San Francisco. So it was like a turnaround for me, which was great. I really loved my job there.
Chude: Just as an aside, did you find going to the junior college is what opened you up to the world? Or were you already aware that there was a world out there that you wanted to know?
Marion: No, I don't think so. I think I was still very insulated. Very much so. Everybody goes to school in the Chinese community, so that's what I did. And it was something prescribed in a part of my culture. Education is important. But I almost didn't make it to City College because my parents said, "OK, it's time for you to get married and have kids." And that was a very Chinese thing, a very village thing.
And I politely told my mother, "How about one year of college?" And she said, "Well, all right." But her plan for me was to try and find me a husband and try and get me married. So after a year in college, I sort of snuck in another year, and then I got too restless. I just couldn't finish college. I knew there was a world out there. And so through  — we were active in a Presbyterian church in Chinatown. And one of the members happened to be from a college in Nebraska, and so I said, "I'm going there. I'm just leaving." And so I ended up at a Presbyterian college in Nebraska.
Chude: Did you have a scholarship? Is that how you were able to go?
Chude: How did you deal with the money?
Marion: I worked for a year. When I left City College, I worked for a year and saved money.
Bruce: Worked at what?
Marion: I worked at Levi Strauss and Company. Doing clerical work.
Chude: And was that a Chinese work force? Or mixed?
Marion: No, no. It was mixed.
Chude: So you were now out in the world.
Marion: I was out in the world. Yes, thank you. [Laughter] I finally left, and I went out, because I needed the money. And I had this itch to leave Chinatown. Enough is enough. So yeah, that's where I went. It was Levi Strauss and Company, and I did clerical work. And I think I got that job through the city's job resources agency. And so I worked there for a year, and I got bored again, and I decided, "I've got to finish college." And I didn't want to finish in San Francisco. I just got tired of looking at Chinese. And I needed adventure.
So I just took the easiest way out, and that was through my church. And I said, "OK, if you're from that college, I'm going to that college." So I ended up in Nebraska for a year — Hastings College. There were maybe two other Asians, and maybe five Blacks. And the rest were white midwesterners. It was a good college, but I just couldn't stand it, so after a year, I came back, and I said, "I'm going to San Francisco State."
Chude: Can you say a little bit about why it was so hard being one of a minority in this predominantly midwestern white culture?
Marion: What was it? I couldn't identify with anybody, except with one Japanese gal who was there. And I started becoming friends with one African-American. And I couldn't relate to the midwestern way. I had a roommate whom I got to know quite a bit, and I became friends with her. She was from Iowa, and we maintained friendships for awhile after we graduated. But I just couldn't relate to the rest of the campus. (Looking back to this college experience, I think the student-body was also an insulated student-body, and the small town displayed signs of racism; a professor had to accompany a foreign African student to the barber shop, because he was refused service the day before — and it was more than the fact that they didn't know how to cut Afro-hair. He finally got his hair cut.)
Chude: May I make a couple suggestions? I went to school in Minnesota. From the East Coast. So, to me, I was horrified with midwesterners also. [Laughter] But in trying to understand where I come from, and this would be comparable, I think liberal whites assume that the way to embrace people of color was never to ask questions and to assume you were "just like us."
So that part of the problem was that there was no way to have that dialogue about who are you? And where are you coming from? And now I'm pretty clear that WASPs are not raised to ask questions, personal questions. But Bruce and I were talking about this, and he was saying he didn't ask it either, and he's Jewish. But that whole question of what happens when you come in and you're different, and you're looking all this difference, but nobody is saying, "How do you perceive us? And what's different from where you come from?" That's got to contribute to the alienation, right?
Marion: Yeah, I think you're right. The racial consciousness was not there. You're right, absolutely right. And so I was really homesick.
The first year I [went] with one other gal [from Chinatown]. We both went. We both went for one year. She came back, and she said that was it. I said maybe that was it too. And then I spent one semester at San Francisco State and realized it's going to take me another two years to graduate, whereas if I went back to [Hastings], I had only one year to graduate. So I just bit my lip and just went back. That's what I did.
Bruce: One question. Your mom still wanted you to get married. How did you keep...? I mean, you got a year — you conned her into a year of college, and now you want to go to another state —
Marion: I sort of slipped in. I'm very slippery. [Laughter] I said, "Mom, can I go away to college?" "Well, if you pay for it." OK, so that's what I did. I won't be any bother to you. And so that's what happened. I sort of slipped in.
Chude: And she may or may not — or your parents may or may not have believed you could do it.
Marion: And what I did — see, I didn't just work. I went into a bank, and I asked for a student loan. And at that time, it was like two-percent interest, so I could do it. And so I took out a two-year loan. And I was, in those days, after graduation in '65, I was able to work soon after, a year after or two years, and I was able to pay it all off. You can't do it nowadays.
Bruce: No, you can't.
Marion: But I was lucky then. So that's what I did.
Bruce: I'm thinking though, that your mother was quite impressive. From what little I know of Chinese families, to let you get away with putting her off and not getting married, that was something.
Marion: Well, that's very interesting that you caught on to that. My mother is a renegade in her own right.
She told me that when she was in China she was sold. Girls can be sold. She was sold when she was eight years old. She was expendable because she was a girl, so she got sold to a family who needed a servant girl. And when she married my father, she was my father's third wife. I think of his first two wives, one died, and one ran away. [Laughter]
Chude: You think that made her more independent? Is that part of what you're thinking? Because you called her a renegade. And Bruce is asking the question of how she allowed you to —
Marion: Yeah, I really don't know. It may have something to do with the fact that she was a servant girl, and when she got to the United States, she had to fend for herself. Because my father didn't have any time; he had to work. So she was in a new country with new languages, and everybody looks strange. And she had to take care of — she was pregnant with my oldest brother. I think that she just found a reserve in her to have to survive.
Bruce: But how did that make her more willing to let you kind of violate the traditional norms of what a Chinese girl is supposed to do?
Marion: By the time I went to college, there were — I had seven brothers and sisters. I was the third oldest. You know, she can only handle so many of us, and she can only concentrate on so many of us. So when I made a decision on something, she didn't know what to do because she didn't have the time to deal with me.
Chude: But also, your father made enough money that it didn't have to be that you went to work to support the family. Because that was true in other families.
Marion: Right, we kids didn't go to work although if we could, we would. We did find jobs later when we were in high school. I worked summers in a shrimp factory; my brothers found odd jobs shining shoes in the park, and had newspaper routes. For a lot of years we sold confetti outside our door in Chinatown during New Year's Eve. We became creative at finding work. My parents had to work "double shift" hours just to keep us all afloat. And then my mother also was very innovative. She decided she needed to make money herself. But everybody in Chinatown — how women make a living was — towards the war effort; I believe my mother mentioned working as a welder or riveter at a shipyard in San Francisco. Then, most of the women in Chinatown went and did sewing in sewing factories.
She didn't want to do that. I think her thought was she had too many kids, and she needed to stay at home. And so she was very innovative. She decided that she was going to make something that a lot of people don't know how to make yet, or don't have any interest, and that was making the traditional Chinese women's outfits. And so they had to be fitted.
Bruce: Like Cheongsams?
Marion: Yeah, exactly. Cheongsams. So you've got to be fitted. You can't just go to a store and just buy something.
Chude: So she became a dressmaker.
Marion: Yes. And she made a living doing that. So that means that people have to come to our apartment to get fitted. And so she had a bedroom with my father, and so she used that bedroom. She put a sewing machine in that bedroom and a mirror in that bedroom, so whoever wants to change or anything, that's what they would do. That's the room. And so people would come in and out, a lot of people. And that's how she made a living, and so both my parents were sort of working.
Actually, come to think of it, I never thought of this. I think it was like, the government doesn't know that she's working. I never thought of this but, oh my gosh, she was doing everything under the table like bootlegging.
Bruce: I'm struck by that's such a classic American immigrant story. I mean, that story I could tell about my Jewish —
Marion: Another thing we did — oh yeah, I forgot all about this. Our whole family got together. We lived on the fourth floor. And so every floor has a — the hallways are all linoleum. And the steps were all linoleum, so you could hear people coming up and down the stairs. So there's four flights of this. And each flight had, let's see — one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Seven apartments on each floor.
So my mother was really smart. She looked up the owner and said, "If I were the manager of all these floors, and I take care of the floors, and I keep them washed and everything, could I get a lower rent?" Because we were such a big family we had to rent out two apartments, across the hall from each other. And so for 16 years, I knew what it was like to first sweep all the floors, the four levels of the stairs, and then we would have this wax, and we'd get on our hands and knees and start waxing all four levels of this huge apartment building. That's how we made a living too. So my mother was very smart. She just knew how to get in and out of stuff.
And it was really funny, because my mother — oh, one thing my mother did that I didn't mention. One day, out of nowhere, she said — she must've talked it over with my father. She couldn't have just done it out of the blue. But one day she went and announced to us, "We're gonna be in charge of a hotel on Bush Street downtown, and we're gonna live there, and we're gonna run it." So we up and move out of Chinatown, move to Bush Street, and it's a two-level or maybe three, two or three-level hotel. My mom bought it. Somehow she got the money to buy this hotel. And I don't know if my father was involved. I mean, that's how strong she was. And we had to run this whole damn thing. That means people coming in. My parents couldn't speak English, so we ran the thing.
And we had to do the books. We had to paint the rooms. We had to wash the sheets and iron the sheets and put it back, while we were going to college and school. And when I was in high school, that's what we were doing. So she ran that business.
Bruce: Let me ask you another question. You have seven brothers and sisters, so you're not the only girl. Did your sisters also take different paths — not necessarily immediate quick marriage right after high school?
Marion: Yeah, oh God, I had to be so polite to my mother and my father. I'm not get married yet, OK? [Laughter] I went away, yeah. And by that time we were so Americanized, that we just told our parents, "We're not doing it."
Bruce: And they accepted that.
Marion: They accepted that.
Bruce: Good for them.
Chude: Was it easier that second year at Hastings? The second time back?
Marion: I think it was just as crazy. But there was a silver lining to that. The second year there was a religion professor who, after spring vacation I believe — or maybe it was Christmas, 1964. I don't remember. He came back and spoke to our class about his two-week experience in Hattiesburg, Mississippi under the Delta Ministry, which was of course Christian and Interdenominational, part of the National Council of Churches. . And I was in a Presbyterian college.
And I was just like, "Huh?" And a light bulb went on in my head. I said, "I'm ready for this." And I don't know why, because maybe I was bored enough. There was a foreign exchange student from Germany, very outgoing, who graduated the same time I did from this college, and she and I said, "Hey, let's go." I invited her to my house after graduation. I said, "Live with me and my family before you leave for Germany, after graduation." She said, "OK, it'll be fun." And we looked at each other and said, "Hey, before we do that, let's go to Mississippi." "Yeah! Why not?" And so that's what we did.
We graduated in May of '65. So in '65 after graduation we said goodbye to the college, and we took a bus, and headed down to Mississippi from Nebraska.
Chude: Well, I have a question about your friend from Germany, because this is something I discovered also after I left Mississippi and went back to finish at —
When I went back to Carleton, I organized some of the Black students to talk about what it was like to be a minority on our campus, and they ended up deciding — the ones who decided to meet decided to keep meeting. And they invited the international students to join, and so I'm struck by the fact that you're talking about a German woman; you're talking about a white woman, and yet you feel a connection with her that you didn't feel —
Marion: Because — this is very astute. Because I was considered a foreign student. You know, I look foreign. Then again, Karen also didn't act Midwestern.
Bruce: Yeah. And not only did you look foreign, you were from San Francisco! [Laughter]
Marion: Right on! Right on! Nebraska. Hastings, Nebraska. This is San Francisco? Yeah, you're right.
Bruce: Sodom and Gomorrah [Laughter].
Marion: And because I was kind of like itching for a social group, I had to join a sorority, because there was no Foreign Student Club. I mean, I was isolated. And so Karen and I — Karen Goetsh was her name — she and I decided, "Well, yeah, let's just join a group, just to do something." So yeah, it was really weird. So yeah, I was considered a foreign student. I mean, there was no place else for me to go. There was a handful of us. This was in Hastings, Nebraska of all places. So yeah, it was really strange.
And then, my girlfriend who went [to Hastings] with me. She lasted one semester. And one day, she was in class. I wasn't in the same class that she was. But I heard, somebody told me after class that she was sobbing in the middle of class. The teacher told her it was OK; she can go to her room. So I ran to her room when I found out, and I said, "Cara, what happened?" She said, "Nothing, nothing. I don't want to talk about it." And I think she was homesick, and she couldn't relate to the way that class was taught.
Chude: So we have both the issue of people not respecting or even acknowledging difference; we have the issue that here you are, born in the United States, but the only way they can conceptualize you is as a foreigner, even though you're born here and stuff. But we also have the fact that you're lonely. You know, tremendous loneliness.
Marion: Yeah, yeah.
Chude: That comes from being so outside and having no way —
Marion: Yes, that was it. [Laughter] That was our way out. So it's graduation, where are we gonna go? I'm not gonna go back home. No way! I said, "Let's just do something." Then when this professor talked about his experience, I was, "Let's go! Yeah, let's go!" So that's what happened.
Chude: So you didn't really know what you were getting in for?
Marion: No. No, we knew it was dangerous, but we didn't know anything else. And the thing about the Delta Ministry, it's like a family. It's a small operation. It's tiny. We stayed in one place. We didn't go anywhere except for marches. We hardly went anywhere except nearby, nearby towns.
Bruce: And where was it? Hattiesburg?
Marion: Hattiesburg. So anywhere within a 50-mile range, we were there, but not further. I went to Jackson and Tougaloo College for meetings. So in other words, we were really entrenched in Hattiesburg for the long haul. We did everything in a very deep way, because we were entrenched. The director was entrenched. He refused to leave. His kid was born there. He decided, "I'm not gonna leave." I'm gonna be here for the long haul. I'm gonna be a citizen of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I'm gonna stay, and I'm gonna fight.
Bruce: And who was that?
Marion: Bob Beech.
Chude: And he was white.
Marion: He was white.
Chude: So were the people who came down to work with the Delta Ministry, were they primarily white except for yourself?
Chude: But not African-American.
Bruce: There were a couple African-Americans, I think, working with the Delta Ministry. See, the thing is, we don't know who's Delta and who's not, because what was beautiful about the Delta Ministry was, whoever wants to work with us can work with us. So COFO was there, in and out. Do you know someone by the name of Ira Grupper?
Marion: Oh sure. [Laughter]
Chude: Oh yeah!
Marion: He's one of my best friends.
Bruce: Really? He was with Delta Ministry? He always says SNCC.
Marion: No, no. He's with SNCC, but he comes in and out. And he and I are very, very close. My daughter was in the state next to him. He's in Kentucky. I mean, when he comes here, we see each other all the time. I mean, we're like brother and sister. Yeah, we are very close.
Chude: So your point being that there weren't those political sectarian distinction type things. It was everybody in the Movement just were in and out. And you were based there, so people coming through —
Marion: Yeah. And what's good is the Delta Ministry opened themselves to whoever wants to come in. So COFO, SNCC, all kinds of people were there. And we worked together, so I don't know who's who. Nobody cares. So that's what that office was —
Chude: And where did you live?
Marion: I lived with Mrs. Sims in the Fourth District, which is a Black community. And what I did, almost every day, was walk the precincts, and we walked the streets and got to know people. And there was no agenda for me. I made up my own agenda.
Bruce: And this is in Hattiesburg? Or Palmer's Crossing?
Chude: And was your friend with you?
Bruce: You got involved in the Movement through a religious connection. From the Presbyterian Church to Hastings a religious college to the Delta Ministry a faith-based group. Did you see what you were doing in a religious context?
Marion: Looking back, I was attached to my Presbyterian faith and very much aware of "being of service." But what the Movement experience gave me was that "actual service" to the people of Hattiesburg meant more to me than the "faith" part of being Presbyterian.
Bruce: Service to humanity, service to the community.
Marion: Yes. And also I was interested in sociology and social work when I was in college.
Marion: Yeah, Mrs. Sims. Oh God, I had a hard time. It was great, and it was really hard. God was it hard, because she would make grits every single day, for months. I can't stand grits! [Laughter] No, no wait a minute. I take that back. At home, my mother used to make me grits, but it was like once every four months. Every single morning, I said, "OK, thanks, Mrs. Sims." And I just tried to swallow it. And once in awhile I would say, "Can I please not have it today?" [Laughter] And I was afraid to talk to her about it.
And then her back yard — her house is made out of — I mean, it's like a wooden cabin, right? In her back yard, she would have this huge tub, and it was always hot. And it was always full of — how do you — when you make — what do you call that? We used to do it. When you wash clothes, you starch. Starch.
She would have this starch mix in this huge boiling pot in the back, and she would do it every single day. She would starch her clothes every day. But she's something else. She's a wiry, skinny woman, and when you look at her, you wouldn't know that she had a history of civil disobedience.
She goes to church every single day. I mean, they don't have church on Sundays. They have it seven days a week, and I would go with her. And one day, I was so scared, because she was in the choir, and one day, she just fell to the floor, and she started screaming. And everybody around her didn't think anything of it. They just kept singing, and I think, "What the hell?" And I stood up, and I was gonna help her. How come no one's helping her? And I realized, it took me awhile, that that's normal. And afterwards I went to her, "Are you OK, Mrs. Sims?" "Yeah, I'm fine. Why?" [Laughter]
Oh my gosh. So it was a lot of culture shock for me.
Bruce: What were some of the other differences between the Black church and your experience with the Presbyterian church?
Marion: Well, as you can imagine, a white — western oriented — Presbyterian church in San Francisco Chinatown, I mean it's —
Bruce: And Hastings.
Chude: Much more staid, if nothing else.
Marion: Yes, thank you. Staid and what do you call it? Formal. But at the same time, the church was vibrant and very much in touch with the community and with social issues.
Chude: Nobody that would be having the Spirit come down and take them over.
Marion: Yeah, I mean, I miss going to the Baptist church, because I could just go like, "Yeah! Yeah!" You know? And it was so much fun dancing. Singing in the pews. I just loved it. The spirit did move me there.
And so when I went back to Chinatown to the Presbyterian church, there was one time when the youth, the college kids, were able to do something different, so I had us turn the pews in a circle, change all the pews around and start singing some spirituals! [Laughter] But anyway, I thought it was funny.
Marion: But anyway, so speaking of that, when we went back to church, Karen and I, we went back to San Francisco, we gave a talk about our experiences. And they were so curious. It's the first time they ever heard of the Civil Rights period.
Chude: This is in Chinatown.
Marion: This was in Chinatown.
Bruce: Well how long were you in Mississippi?
Marion: OK, I was there for two months, because it was summer. I came back to San Francisco, and my heart was in Hattiesburg. My love was in Hattiesburg. I just couldn't leave, the idea of leaving Hattiesburg. What I did was, I started working through the churches that I was involved in throughout the City, and another Baptist minister heard about me. He worked with me, and what we did was we put together a citywide conference on the Delta Ministry, because my energy was there. I just couldn't stop. It was too endearing for me.
Bruce: Did you ever go back to working in Hattiesburg?
Marion: OK. So I also had a clothes drive, with the intention of going back to Hattiesburg the next summer, taking a train, getting all these huge bags of clothes down to Mississippi, that's what we did. The second time around, the next year, so I had this —
Bruce: Which would've been the summer of '66.
Marion: '66, right. But before that, I had this conference, and what amazed me was [California state Senator and later Mayor] George Moscone showed up at my conference, at my workshop. I said, "What is he doing here?" He appeared, and I said, "Holy shit!" [Laughter]
And we went to several churches, making presentations, and one of them was Glide [Memorial Methodist Church]. And so anyway, I did that. And then I recruited two people the second summer, two people from the church in Chinatown, to go with me, go back to Mississippi.
One was Chinese, one was white. So Adrian Fong and I were Chinese, and Jim [French...] was white. So the three of us took the train, because we had all these clothes that we had. So the stupid train had to go all the way up to Utah in order to go down to the Deep South. So we did go back. And the second summer was a little different.
Chude: Before we go to the second summer, I just wanted to comment that I think it was fairly common for people coming out of the South to have this almost desperate need to both communicate the experience and then to organize other people and to gather clothes, and in my case at my college, we also did curtains and bedspreads. But as you were saying that identification was so strong that we just needed to keep a way of connection that was helping our friends.
Chude: You know, the people there. I thought of them as people I was deeply connected to.
Chude: Now, I don't know if that was true for you when you came out, Bruce, because you'd been there longer, and you might've been more exhausted.
Bruce: Yeah, I did not have that, but then I was basically two years.
Marion: Hmm. Because you were burned out.
Bruce: Yeah, totally.
Marion: I wasn't. I wasn't.
Chude: Right. See, I think that's one difference. I wouldn't be surprised that it was fairly common for those of us that went down for summers to come back with this kind of energy.
Bruce: But missing the Southern Movement, as a political movement, was something that I experienced. And I think everybody I've ever talked to, even if they were only there for a summer, came out of the South missing some kind of —
Marion: Why do you think?
Bruce: Because I think that our lives during that period had such intense meaning and importance, and we were so connected to a community, a whole community, that was not just in struggle and crisis but in freedom, that was creating something new. It was such a powerful, emotional thing that some of us, when we got out, we missed it desperately, but we could not talk about it, because it was too painful what we were missing. It was just too painful to even talk about.
Chude: And I think two things also. I think it was one of those moments where the personal and the political were completely connected, so there was no private life that was separate from the Movement. And for both yourself as a Chinese American and myself as a white American, and I assume you Bruce as Jewish, that we were also expanding our understanding of what it meant to be a human being.
Chude: We were outside the cultures, the sub-cultures, we'd been brought up in, and so we were personally growing and expanding, but at the same time, it was also all political.
Bruce: I think also — it's very important the shared danger, because you hear that also from military veterans. You know, we were all in the foxhole together. And that shared danger created a bond. In the military, the bond only would be between the other people in the Army unit, but in our case, the bond was to the whole community, to the Mrs. Sims who was putting us up, to the Mr. Richburgs who were the local leaders, to the kids.
Bruce: We were kids too, but I'm thinking of the younger kids who were marching and hanging around. We were all sharing this very significant and real and serious danger together, and that forged a bond. And you talk to military veterans, a lot of them, the bonds that they formed in combat in Vietnam, to this day 50 years later, are still some of the most important human bonds in their life.
Chude: But we also believed in what we were doing. We didn't have that question, like with Vietnam, "What are we doing here with these people of color?" We believed in what we were doing, and there was actual progress, structural changes were being made in the society. And at least for me, and I would think for you [Marion], you said when you came back and you spoke in your community, there was a lot of curiosity. You weren't getting, necessarily, a lot of overt, "We don't want to know about this," or overt racism. What you were getting was a lot of interest.
Chude: By '66 in San Francisco, that makes sense. I know that when I came out of Mississippi in 1964, I did experience individuals who were overtly racist, but my community was interested. And when I went back to college in Minnesota, people were having me come to speak. In both our cases, we are females who are out there speaking who would not have been doing that if we hadn't been in the South, if we hadn't gone and done something, and we were the ones there.
Marion: When I walked into this community center in Chinatown called Cameron House, after Mississippi, one of the people there, an older leader, said, "You know, Marion, you've changed. I don't recognize you anymore." And what he meant was I had been content growing up to be quiet, because my nature is I'm a quiet person. I am actually pretty quiet. So is my husband. We're both very quiet people. But when I say that to my close friend, she says, "You've got to be kidding, Marion. That's how you see yourself?"
I say, "Yeah, that's how I see myself." Because that's how I was brought up, to be quiet. So it did change me, because I got angry. I learned to be angry when I got down there. I didn't know what social anger was all about. I never felt it. I felt deprived. I knew what that felt like. I knew what it felt like to be second class. I knew what it felt like to be a minority woman. And I knew how to behave under those circumstances.
Marion: But the Black experience, not in a northern sense but the southern sense, it was so [obvious] and so real that the impact was immediate. I mean, there's just nothing that can show you what it's like to have to decide, "Am I gonna sit on the white side or on the Black side?" You know, nobody can give you that experience unless you have to go through it yourself. And then as someone who is neither Black nor white, I mean, I was really confused. I wasn't confused. I knew I was going to the Black side, but it was really a fascinating experience for me. I could choose. I couldn't believe I could choose. [Laughter]
I took advantage of that hesitation, and I knew how to use it. But it took me awhile to figure that out. "Hey, I could do that, right away." And they didn't know what to do with me. "Hey, use me." And that was the beauty of being Asian for me at that time, that I felt like I knew how to fit in, and no one else can fit in, the slot that I could do, which happened a few times where we were able to get away with stuff because they were hesitating, because I was there.
OK, so my very first day on the job [in Hattiesburg], they were saying, "OK, we're all getting in this car. How many cars do we need? Where are we going? We're going to City Hall, the courthouse." "How come we're going to the courthouse?" "Well, this guy was arrested yesterday, just walking along the highway, and they knew that he was a Freedom Fighter, and so he got arrested. And we've got to bail him out. We're going to try to bail him out." I said, "OK."
So we went to the courthouse, and as soon as we got in, there was a row of empty benches, so of course we sat in the one that's nearest the door. And there were maybe about ten of us or so, whites and Blacks. So we sat in the front, and before the proceeding could start on the case, there was a deputy sheriff that went to each one of us, because we were all sitting together, and we're not supposed to do that. So apparently we were sitting in the white section, so the sheriff approached each one of us who were not white, to please move to the Black section which was on the other side of the court room, towards the back.
And as he said it to each one of the Black workers, they each said, in turn, "No, I'm not moving." And by the time he got to me, he stopped in his tracks, and he started scratching his head. He looked at me, and he didn't know what to do. He didn't say anything. He went to the back of the courthouse, whispered something to the judge, and they had a brief conversation that lasted maybe a minute, and then the deputy sheriff went back to the front of the courthouse and told everybody that the case was dismissed. [Laughter]
So we left the courthouse, and we stood outside the door of the courthouse, and I was really angry. We were all sort of standing around, milling around in a circle. We said, "What just happened?" "I have no idea. I don't know what happened. I said, "They're supposed to have a trial! Just because of me? Well, OK, then I'm happy." [Laughter] And we were beside ourselves. We just couldn't believe it. And so that was quite an experience, and I loved that moment. I mean, that was the highlight. It was the first day on the job, and it was my best day.
Bruce: The whites didn't know how to react to you as an Asian woman.
Marion: They didn't know where to put me.
Chude: And you represented, in that very individual way, in the same way that Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez, as a Latina, represented in the Southern Freedom Movement this little clue that in fact there was a multicultural element here. It wasn't just Black/white. But it was a few years ahead of when we were going to start to see the Chicana Movement and Yellow Power and the Native American Movement.
Chude: You represent that kind of person who made that link. Which is one of the reasons you define yourself as weird, because you didn't come with a group.
Marion: Right, there's no definition for me.
Bruce: How did the Black community react to you?
Marion: In general, they loved me. [the kids] wanted to hear me speak Chinese. And as soon as I said something Chinese, they would scream and yell, and they thought it was so hilarious. It's mostly the kids. And I would teach them some songs in Chinese, and they would laugh and scream, and they were just having a great time. And they were curious. The people living in the neighborhood, in the community I was in, were really very polite, very much at ease, treated me in a very comfortable way. I don't think I felt uncomfortable at all, not one time with them.
Chude: Did they sit down with you?
Marion: Yeah. I mean, I would go and visit, and they said, "Come on in, sit down. Let's have a chat." "Do you want something?" They were always asking whether you want water or not.
Bruce: Did they address you as "Miss?" Or did they call you "Marion?" Or "Miss Marion?"
Marion: I don't ever remember them calling me "Miss." But I made sure I called them "Mr." and "Miss."
Chude: Say more on that, because I don't think people understand that today. I find myself over and over thinking, "It's not OK that people today refer to Miss Ella Baker as 'Ella' or Mrs. Hamer as 'Fannie Lou,'" as if they knew these people. I mean, it's not just that they don't know them. I mean, after all I don't know Hilary Clinton, and everybody calls her "Hilary," right?
Bruce: I don't.
Chude: You don't, right. [Laughter] But you understand what I'm saying. I think it's so important for people to understand how important it was for them to be called "Mr." and "Mrs." and "Miss."
Marion: You know what? My kids know that to this day. You never approach a Black person without giving them a salutation, and they know that. I said, "You better, or otherwise, I'm gonna get you." But everybody else, I don't care what they say! But yeah, you're right. It's so important.
Bruce: For me, what's interesting is that I, and I think for most of the other white Civil Rights workers, for a lot of people in the Black community, not everyone, but certainly the adults, it was a struggle to get them to address me as "Bruce" rather than as "Mr. Bruce." That was instinctive because it was a survival tool.
Marion: Yes, yes.
Bruce: And that was training. And so to reassure and say, "Yes, you can call me by my first name without danger," it took a little work each time, but that wasn't the case with you.
Marion: I don't remember them having a problem with me.
Bruce: That's interesting, because it means they saw you not as white, not as Black either, but certainly not in the same category as whites.
Chude: And I do think, just to add one distinction here, within the African-American community, elders were referred to respectfully also. So along with that, for those of us that were white, it was important we say "Mr." and "Mrs." It also was important that we respect the generational difference, that we respect them.
Chude: And that wasn't necessarily true from where I came from.
Marion: You know, that's what I loved about being in an all-Black community in the Deep South, because it felt so Chinese. [Laughter] The respect and the formality of elders. I just fell right into it, and the tenor, the feeling of it. Just the atmosphere, I was very comfortable with it.
Bruce: So to go back, Blacks of our age I didn't call "Mr." or "Miss." It was from the next generation up.
Chude: So how did the African-Americans of your age group relate to you, Marion?
Marion: Fine. They were trying to hit on [romance] me. [Laughter]
Chude: That was gonna be one of my questions! [Laughter]
Bruce: Surely, you're not talking about sex, are you? [Laughter]
Marion: Hey, anything goes! I never touched the waters, but yeah. I mean, it's hard to have privacy there. [Laughter] But seriously, there was no time for romance to blossom anyway.
Yeah, it [also] took me awhile to adjust to everything else. My listening. I couldn't do the Southern drawl. I couldn't hear it. Did you have problems with it?
Chude: Oh, yes.
Bruce: Oh, yeah.
Marion: OK, it wasn't just me.
Bruce: And they had trouble with us. Understanding what we were saying, in terms of the accent.
Marion: Oh, yeah.
Chude: And often with African-Americans from the North as well. They're talking faster.
Bruce: Yeah, the speed of talking. I would get so impatient with the slow talking. And they would have trouble understanding me, as I'm — they had to slow me down!
Marion: And then in Chinese, the Chinese have no syllables. It's just chuck-chuck-chuck one short word at a time. So if you can go from the long-slur to chuck-chuck-chuck. I mean, it was like, what are you talking about?! [Laughter]
Bruce: The summer of '65 and then the summer of '66, you were with the Delta Ministry in Hattiesburg. So tell us about the work you were doing. What was the program? What were you doing?
Marion: Well, the director, Bob Beech, his way of work down there was you decide what you want to do. "If you can't, I'll help you, but you're on your own. And these are things that could be done. It's up to you. Where do you want to go with it?"
So my first summer, this German friend of mine and I, we both decided we really wanted to do grassroots [organizing], working with young people. We wanted to have a girls club, and we wanted to involve them in voter registration, maybe integrating places and so forth. So we wanted to start with young people in the community that we're sleeping in; we're living there. And so every day we would wake up, have our grits, and we would do canvassing; we would get to know the neighborhood. We started meeting up with some of the young kids there. We decided it was going to be girls, all girls. So that's what we did.
I attended a lot of mass meetings, as you can imagine, a lot of community meetings with other civil rights groups. There's a lot of that. Hattiesburg has the University of Southern Mississippi. We went in there to see what it's like to integrate it. We weren't sure how to do it, because there weren't that many Blacks at that time there. I mean, there's none, actually. But we started questioning and talking to students, just on our own. But Karen and I were not Black, so we didn't know exactly how to deal with it there. So we tried that.
Some of the kids thought that we could try and integrate a swimming pool. And so we met as a group, the Civil Rights group. We met at Bob Beech's house, and we asked, "Is that possible? Can we do it?" And Bob said, "It's up to you guys. You do your thing." And so we met. Karen and I met, and we decided there was one girl who was willing to go with us, with permission from her family, I hope. I think there was permission from her family.
There was an older white woman with us in my group. There was Karen, my friend. There was another white guy. So there were four of us and this Black girl. And so the decision was that Karen and this other guy would go in first, go into the pool. We wanted to find out whether people could still go in, how much would it cost, and all this stuff. So they would pay their fee, and they would get inside the pool. And this other older woman would go to the ticket counter and then she would give us her signal: if the pool is still open she would have her glasses on, and she would put it on top of her head.
Marion: So, where was I? Oh, the swimming pool. So anyway, it turned out that it was fine. That means that we should try and integrate it. So this girl and I went up to — I don't know why it had to be me and her. I wonder, looking back now, whether it would've been better if it was a white and Black, but anyway, that's beside the point. So we went up to the teller, and the teller said, "I'm sorry, but the swimming pool is full. We can't let you in." And I said, "I understand it is not full." "Yeah, but it is full now." [Laughter] And we looked at each other, and by that time, a crowd was gathering. And I said, "You know what? Let's just sit in front of the gate until two people leave, and we can go back in. Is that right? That means we can go back in, right?" And the teller replies, "Oh yeah, I guess so." And so we sat right in front, so no one can come in and we see who comes out. I was rather pleased with my strategy.
And it was just, you just pull a trick out of your hat. You don't know until it happens what to do. And so she and I just sat there and sat there, and unfortunately, we did the wrong thing. We started talking over the fence to our friends in the pool. I said, "That was stupid." Anyway, they knew that we were together. Oh God, looking back, you just do things you just don't know you did. And they're the ones who got it worse than we did. They had to sit out in the pool. They can't move anywhere, because everybody was surrounding them. And they started getting sunburned. [Laughter]
Chude: So the hostility was directed at them.
Marion: At them, because they were in the pool —
Bruce: And they were white, and therefore race traitors.
Marion: Yes. And they were right there. And they knew us, and they couldn't get out. And then there was talk among [the whites], so we can hear. There's two white guys, and near us, not far from us, was a case of empty Coke bottles. And they're all glass, and they were talking about using them on us. And I chose to ignore it. I mean, sometimes you have to go by your gut. You just don't know what to do, and I just chose to ignore it. And I just felt, a gut feeling, that I was going to be OK, and she was going to be OK. And there was some fervor around. They kept telling us to leave, and I decided not to leave. But to make a long story short, they decided to close the entire pool down, so everybody had to leave. And we had to leave, so that's what happened. And I didn't know until later that Bob Beech, the director of our group, was sitting in the audience. He was there just in case.
Chude: That's what I was going to ask you.
Marion: He didn't tell us he was going. He said, "You guys are on your own." But he was there. He was there just in case.
Bruce: And since this was '65 or '66, the Civil Rights Act had already passed, so segregating a public pool was a violation of federal law. So unlike before the Civil Rights Act, where you would've been arrested for violating a local segregation ordinance, they were the ones who were committing the crime, not you.
Chude: And the solution [in many southern communities] was to close the whole thing down.
Marion: Yeah, you're right. You're right. I hadn't connected those two. Yeah.
Chude: So Marion, had you been trained in nonviolent direct action?
Marion: Nope. You know, I missed that.
Marion: Yeah, quite a few. We had really late meetings at Bob Beech's house, and he chose to live in a white neighborhood, only because his son was to be born, and he wanted to be close to a hospital, and the hospital was close by. So that's where he decided to rent his house. The gutsiest guy I've ever met. His whole family was there. He's got three boys now, and they had to be home-schooled sometimes, because they weren't allowed in the schools when they found out their father was a civil rights leader. So anyway, he's got his whole family there.
So we would have night meetings there, and one of those meetings when we left for home we had to stop at railroad tracks, but just at that time the flags went down and the bells went on. So we were stuck until they lifted the guard rail. At that precise time, two other cars were driving right up, right along side us, and we were looking to our left and to our right, and we said "Oh no, Oh no..." But it was just a scary moment, but nothing happened.
But our minds were just on alert, because we didn't have any weapons with us. We don't have weapons, for some reason. Most of us don't, right? In those days? I mean, there were scary moments. There was another time when I was at a meeting at night, and I had this phone call from Bob Beech, and he wanted to talk to me alone. So I answered the phone, and he said, "Be careful out there when you leave, in your district." He said he doesn't know why, but he just wants me to be alert because there's some Ku Klux Klan activity in our neighborhood. And I wasn't going to be back home to Mrs. Sims until like 11 at night or something like that. So these are warnings.
So that night when I went home I was dropped off from a car, I had to walk up the stairs and had to knock at the front of the gate, because there are two gates going in. Yeah, two gates going in, the first being the gate to the front porch. I had to knock, and usually Mrs. Sims is asleep, and I had to knock for awhile before she heard me. And I kept thinking, "When is the bullet gonna go through my back?" I kept thinking of that. I mean, stuff like that. It happens, but it never materialized. You just thanked God that it never materialized.
And there were times when I had to walk from the office in downtown Hattiesburg to home which is, it's like a 45-minute walk in the hot sun. And I would take a short-cut, and there's a swamp in between that I could take a shortcut through. Half the time I would take it, because I was so desperate. And you would walk along this little dirt road, and sometimes there's snakes coming by. But you know, they're the least of my worries. I'm just worried about somebody shooting me. But I just didn't want to take the long way home in the hot heat. And I would use this swamp to go through there. I mean, it's just stuff.
Chude: And you were walking alone.
Marion: I was alone.
Chude: So you didn't have a rule in your project that you couldn't be alone [as was the rule during Freedom Summer of 1964]?
Marion: And then there was one — I wish I remember what march that was. It was a big march. I think it was Jackson or somewhere else.
Bruce: In the summer of '65 there were big protest marches in Jackson.
Chude: And people were arrested.
Bruce: A lot of arrests.
Marion: Yeah, people were arrested. Ira [Grupper] told me a lot about his experience there, but Bob Beech protected us. He's like a father figure. It was a family. It was like Delta Ministry is a handful of us. He had a small office. But I said, "I'm going," because everybody else was going." And he said, "No, you're not." I said, "Yes, I am." "No, you're not." "What about Karen?" "Well, she's not going either." "What!! You can't tell me what to do, Bob." "No, you're not going." And so there's one of these big marches. He's kind of protective, and I didn't go to one of those. But the rest I did.
Chude: So you didn't get arrested and go through all that experience?
Marion: No! [Laughter] I didn't go through that experience.
Marion: I had a journal in '66. And I wrote in this journal about the James Meredith March and that I was there. I'm glad I wrote it, because I wouldn't have had the flavor if I'd written it now. But along this march, I remember a few things.
We were getting some people ready at this — I guess we call it a housing project here, but somewhere in Mississippi. I don't think it was Hattiesburg. It was somewhere else. We were helping the people there get ready to go on the march. And it was so interesting, because one lady was putting on her heels, her Sunday best. And I said to her, "You know, maybe you should wear something more comfortable, because you're going to be walking for hours." Or, "Take that with you, but wear something else." But I was kind of impressed with that, that it was something important for her.
And then another thing was people were taking pictures of me left and right, and I just couldn't get away from cameras. Finally, a union came up and said, "Do you mind if we take a picture of you on your walk?" and I don't know anything about unions.
Bruce: What do you mean "a union came up?"
Marion: A representative of — it was AFL-CIO at that time. And he asked, and I said, "I guess so." But it was my first experience with a union. I had no idea what unions meant.
Chude: But people were focusing on you because you were one of the few Asians there?
Marion: Yes. They were all saying — and then the Blacks, young Blacks, they were pointing at me. "Chinese!" How did they know I was Chinese? But anyway, "Chinese! Chinese!" [Laughter] And I thought, "Oh wow, what an experience." I didn't want that kind of attention, but there I was. It was kind of funny.
Bruce: That march was a big deal for Mississippi. It was a long march, and on the last day there were probably more than 12,000 people participating. Compared to the March on Washington or the final day of the March to Montgomery, 12,000 isn't large, but most of them were Black Mississippians, and for Mississippi that was huge. The mass media, and most of the history articles and books I've seen, focus on the politics of the march — the controversy over "Black Power" and the conflicts between the NAACP, CORE, SCLC, and SNCC. They ignore the social significance of 12,000 Afro-Americans in Mississippi taking a public stand against white terrorism and the impact that had on both whites and Blacks in the state.
But for myself personally, the only thing I remember of that last day on the march is how terribly hot it was. That sun was just beating down on us like a hammer. I was walking along, and I realized I was close to sun stroke. We passed a service station that had one of these ice sheds where you put a quarter, and a big 25-pound block of ice comes out. I had a quarter, and I put it in, and I picked up the block of ice and threw it down onto the ground so it would shatter. And then I took a piece of the ice, wrapped it in a bandana and put it on my head at the back of my neck.
Bruce: And everybody else came over to do that. That's my main memory of that last day. Of course, I have vivid memories of the police atrocity in Canton and the fear all along the route, but that was all from the previous days.
Marion: I don't know why I was so stoic. Damn it. I was hot as hell too. My throat was parched, can't even talk. I also remember a Black family giving out water as we approached the Negro/Black area. I refused to drink that water. I was so stoic. I'm gonna go all the way. And I did. I was so stupid. [Laughter]
Chude: Why stupid?
Marion: I felt stupid because I should've taken water, instead of trying to prove to myself that I'm "strong and I could finish the march without a drink of water. And I even bypassed a table where a Black family had water out for us all to take!
Chude: In a way, you were insulting these Black families who were out there bringing water and risking —
Marion: I felt like, what's wrong with me? I was trying to be so brave, you know?
Chude: Well, and people reading this need to understand there were no piles of plastic bottles of water [as is common today at marches, marathons, and other public events].
Marion: No! [Laughter] There weren't.
Bruce: No, and there were no drinking fountains you could risk going to either.
Marion: Actually, when I look back and hear the rest of your stories, I was not privy to training. I was not privy to being with a large group of people, feeling like I'm one of a hundred people. I never had that experience, which was strange. But what I had, and I knew a lot of others did not have, was the fact that the director of this project was there for three or four years. I mean, he stood his ground, and I was able to go back and forth. I mean, I knew where home was. And I thought, how brave could you get? I just couldn't believe he could do that.
Bruce: He was amazing. He came down there, I think, in January of '64.
Chude: We might want to point out his wife was brave too. I mean, she's pregnant, and she's there. That was one of my questions for you, Marion, though. You've referred to being Chinese female. And you were expected to be quiet and docile and that you came back angry.
Marion: Yes, I was slowly being transformed! And Alice Beech was the most supportive and most amazing woman I had met in Hattiesburg! She could be seen constantly cutting out newspaper clippings of anything relevant to the current events in town or in MS., including killings and town racial gossip. And I'm never hungry when I'm in her home. Bob and Alice once said that their home was once smoke-bombed and the family had to move out temporarily. They were constantly getting phone threats; even one time when I was there for a meeting in their home.
Bruce: So how did your experience in Mississippi in the Movement, how did it effect you? Change you?
Marion: I became more humanistic rather than spiritualistic.
Bruce: And class? Did you see things in terms of class?
Marion: Well, coming from — you know, I believe I was raised in the lower class.
Bruce: Well, not too much "lower," not buying hotels and stuff.
Marion: But not at first, not at the beginning as new immigrants. We were poor to begin with. My parents didn't start out that way, having resources.
Marion: We started in Chinatown, so anyone living in Chinatown knows that you can only survive as high as you can in Chinatown houses, about as high as you can go. So the poverty was foremost in my mind in Mississippi. And I felt at home about it. It was a very strange thing.
You know, when you're in your community, you don't think about whether it's a rich or poor community. You think about whether it's a warm, supportive community. And when I was in Chinatown, I was supported. We were in our own element, as poor as we may have been or as rich as we may have been, I was still comfortable in my element. My husband and I once volunteered with other school parents at Glide Church in the Tenderloin. It was the low-class neighborhoos. So Bill wasn't that comfortable. Even though he was brought up in a lower middle-class trailer court, I thought he was nervous and was not comfortable being in an impoverished environment. To me, I wasn't serving homeless people. I was just serving people. And so when I was down in Mississippi, it made no difference. There was more dirt on the road, and it's no use sweeping the floor inside Mrs. Sims' house, because the dirt will come back again. (Paved streets in Hattiesburg ended with the white neighborhoods; and in my neighborhood where I lived all roads were dirt roads/dirt streets unpaved. The city council apparently saw no need to pave Negro neighborhoods.) And so poverty is all the same, only it may look different on the outside.
Bruce: Rural versus urban. They're both poverty.
Marion: Yeah, it was poor. Yeah, it was both poverty. And if you can't have a second shirt because you don't have time to wash your first one. You only have one. So what? You know, in Mississippi, it happens. In Chinatown, it happens. It's no big deal. And so I didn't have to jump that far.
The thing about culture, I had to jump far, because when you're in your culture, you don't have to explain. You don't know how to articulate, because you're in it. So when people in the South asked me about being Chinese, I'd say, "I have no idea what you're talking about. I guess, let me try and think about it." But outside of that, there wasn't anything different. Outside of the language and maybe music, but you know, I don't know if the income level was that different for me, to make it a shock.
Bruce: Looking back on your experience in the Civil Rights Movement, in Mississippi in those two summers, what did it mean to you?
Marion: I think my senses have switched to alert, high alert, from low alert to high alert. Meaning that my comfort zone as a Chinese American was a fortunate one when I was growing up. I did not have the pain of abject poverty or abject discrimination because I was protected. So I felt lucky about that. I felt fortunate that I could ask my parents about their history. If they so choose, they can tell me. If they don't want to talk about fleeing China or going through the hardship they had, it was their choice. If I were African- American, I don't have that choice. I don't know who my parents are. I may not.
Bruce: Your ancestors, you mean?
Marion: Yeah, ancestors. Much as I try, I may not be able to get information if I had to really dig it out. And I may not want to learn about it, because it may be too horrifying for me to know. But I knew that my parents went through poverty, but they didn't — there were a lot of separations, and my mother could not find her own parents. She went back and couldn't find them. She couldn't find their graves. But we were still family, and we still had our culture. I knew what it was like to celebrate Chinese New Year. It's been celebrated for centuries, over 4500 years ago. So I knew what customs were, and I knew that African-Americans were not privy to that as easily.
So that was a difference for me. And my sensitivity became — I started looking at everything differently, from a multicultural perspective rather than just from my perspective. I felt like I was more sensitive to different ethnic and racial groups. And I knew that if I went through, as a Chinese American, what happened to the Chinese since the Gold Rush, if I knew that we were subject to so much pain and horror, and Chinese were also hung. They were not always hung by trees, but by lamppost, because that was all there was in some Chinatowns. If there was so much massacre against the Chinese, after seeing the abject poverty and the mass movements of the African-Americans in the United States, I knew that there was a trend in the United States, just the style of how the United States discriminates. And there are ways that they do that.
And one is a method of interrogation; one could be a method of slavery; another could be voting power; and so forth and so on. You can see the style of how the United States does things. It doesn't matter what the Constitution calls for. It's what they do. I have to look at the separation of families. OK, so that's happened at the Mexican border. That's happened with the slave trade. That's happened with the Chinese and wives and kids not being able to join with their fathers, the men who were stranded in San Francisco. You know, to separate families. There's a way that the United States knows how to do that well.
The impact the Movement had on me? By the time I returned home, I had experienced the larger picture of Humanity; I walked it and I lived it along with other freedom fighters and it felt good, even if we each felt "alone" when we returned North. That experience compelled me to look at societies differently and it expanded my way of seeing and understanding and respecting peoples, beginning especially with African Americans. I wised up.
And so, I'm looking at that, because it's not just one group that our government goes against. It does it to all the other groups, as much as possible. And my daughter was talking about, "Mom what about the Jewish people?" I go, "Yeah, I forgot about them." She was so astute. I said, "Yeah, I forgot about them. We should talk about that. Yeah, Hitler did the same thing." I asked, "How did you know all that stuff?" "Oh, you taught me all that." [Laughter]
Bruce: So you talked to your children about your Movement experiences?
Marion: Yeah, that's what changed me too. My husband is very privy to that. I mean, he's the first one who knew about women's rights, because I stood up to him a lot about, "Hey, are you gonna treat me a like a woman? Or are you gonna treat me like a person?" "Oh, no, no, I'm good with you!" [Laughter]
And so he learns from me. And he learns a lot about — and my kids know that. We knew that when we were married that if we had kids we would raise them in the inner city, because I think that's where life is supposed to start from. I don't want them to be isolated from the rest of humanity, and we were lucky to be in San Francisco. So you know, they were raised in the Outer Mission [a lower-income, multi-racial neighborhood] and attended an inner-city school. I was President of the PTA at that time, and we were able to have a Chinese bilingual and Spanish bilingual class there in the Mission. It's Caesar Chavez Elementary School. And it was pretty mixed. I mean, there's a lot of African-Americans, whites, of course a lot of Latinos/Chicanos, Asian kids —
Chude: Back then. Not necessarily now.
Marion: Now it's changing, wow.
Marion: So I made sure that they were raised in that kind of an environment.
Marion: Yeah, and then they know, Keaton's my oldest son, his first grader friend was African-American. And we allowed that to happen. And you know, you watch kids. You don't tell them, "OK, I'm gonna have you make sure that you're friends with so and so." No, those two kids were first-graders, Jason and Keaton and they were both just being themselves, and connecting.
I started talking to Jason's grandfather. Jason doesn't have parents, so his grandfather and his aunt [were raising him]. I was talking to them about it, and told his grandfather that if one soul likes another soul, they belong together as friends, and I allowed that to happen. And Jason happened to be living in Hunter's Point [a predominantly Afro-American neighborhood] with his grandfather who takes care of him. And so I said, "There's nothing wrong with that." And that's what changed me. I forgot about class and race. I was able to look into personality and character, and that's what moved me.
Chude: And it's interesting that you used the word "allowed," because coming here today, I was thinking about my son. And when he was in elementary school, he became friends with a little Chinese boy or Chinese American boy, and I invited him to come for the weekend. That child was not allowed to do anything with my son. So I picked up your "allowed." And the sense I got was that he was to be doing Chinese cultural things on the weekend with the family and the culture. And Casey, being not Chinese, was not to be a part of that.
Marion: It's interesting that you said that, for those reasons, being that most Chinese families were highly conscious of raising their kids in Chinese culture and in doing as much "family life" as was allotted in their free time. That's the immigrant way; family first. I think it's the more biased or the preferred choice in immigrant families to have their child do family events — over playing with classmates or friends. Caesar Chavez School — it used to be Horace Mann — now it's called Caesar Chavez. There's a huge playground, and all the kids were out there, and the parents were out there before the bell rings, right? So every time I go out there, I would hug Jason, because he would run up to me. And I was aware that there were all these Chinese immigrant families out there, Black families, Hispanic families, white families.
So Jason ran up to me all the time, and I was aware of how noticeable that was especially with the Chinese-speaking families. I picked up Jason after school, and I would take him and Keaton and my daughter, Kierra, to a rec center. So picking them all up was a common thing to do; they were raised that way, and after some more years later, Keaton was saying, "Oh, I hate gays." And I said, "Do you remember Mark and Tandy?" "Yeah." "Do you remember they were gay?" "Oh, I forgot." And so he started thinking, because they were surrounded by all kinds of diverse people.
Bruce: Putting on your hat as an observer, how would you compare the role of women in Chinatown, Chinese society, and Hattiesburg Black society?
Marion: Similar. My view of Hattiesburg as a Black community in itself, in its own context, is that it was basically conservative. I would see it as conservative common sense. I did not encounter Black women having "freedom in love and sex" easily displayed in public. I would see it as conservative common sense. That's exactly what the Chinese culture is. I mean, there's no difference. And I'm very much at home with that. I just knew where —
Marion: But you know, it's funny, because within my family, we have very strict sex roles, more than many other Chinese families. Ours is really — I don't know how that happened, but it became very strict. The boys' roles are very, very clear. The women's roles are very, very clear. And you never question it. And so when my father died, whatever he has to his name goes to all the boys. And so there are five girls and three boys in the family.
Chude: And the boys get everything?
Marion: Oh yeah. And then when, let's say, my older brother has to work, and we're all ready for dinner, and he's maybe half an hour late, or we don't know when he's coming back, the dinner's ready and out on the table, already to be served, and we can't eat until the oldest son comes home. Sons traditionally have a lot of privileges.
When my Dad died, the inheritance of that one house we were living in, went to the three sons and also to my mother. The girls were not included. (This was about old tradition. My father had left China at 23 years old; his tradition went with him and stayed with him even when later he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.) My mother wasn't thinking about how her share of the property would go to after she passes on. So we sisters talked to her, and she said, "You know, I'm thinking, when I pass away, I want to give equally to all eight of my children." And so she did. And when my mother passed away, my brothers were really angry at us for doing that. And I couldn't believe it. I said, "You were born and raised here. Come with it."
Chude: Well, they'd already inherited from your father.
Marion: Yeah, but it doesn't matter. [Laughter]
Bruce: Money is money. [Laughter]
Marion: Male privilege is male privilege.
Bruce: That's right!
Chude: So when you first came back from Mississippi and stuff, some of this conflict had to already be there.
Marion: Conflicts to old traditions don't die off easily but possibly became more tolerable in my family. Oh, I think my family thought I was weird. I mean, they didn't know what I was into. Generally, we don't talk.
Chude: But nobody told you you couldn't, even when you were living with your family. Nobody ever said, "You cannot do these things."
Marion: No. They would shun it, but they wouldn't prevent me. Because I think — I had my own job. I had my own money, and I chose my college, and I just did what I wanted. And nobody stopped me, so I just kept doing it. [Laughter] And waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never dropped. And so, yeah, they just saw me as an odd person, that's all. But they wouldn't do anything about it.
Chude: But you know, there's — I remember once reading that there was an early factory in China, probably silk, right? Of young Chinese women who were working in this factory or whatever it was, and they were known for being independent and different, right? Because they earned — I mean, it was money. It was the earning of the money that allowed them to have an independence or a sense of independence.
Marion: Yes, I think so. Right.
Chude: So that was in many ways, if one were to ask, how did Marion get on this trajectory? It was that you took that — your mother already was a role model for somebody who had figured out a way to earn some money for herself, for the family. You took that trajectory of being a worker.
Marion: Right. I was also thinking of an experience that I had with her, with my mother. Being in Chinatown, you don't show your body. I mean, you cover yourself up. And I didn't know that she had a problem with her friends in the community that she wanted to teach all her children how to swim. She wanted us to go to a swimming pool to learn how to swim. That means you have to wear swimsuits. And so she was saying — I had no idea, but she was trying to tell me, "It's OK to wear to a swimsuit." I said, "I know it's OK." She said, "Yeah, it's not OK with the community." So what she did was she gathered some material and made some makeshift swimsuits for the girls. And she marches down to the North Beach swimming pool in San Francisco and got us to learn how to swim.
Chude: In these slightly more covering swimsuits.
Marion: Yeah, it's a one piece, and I don't know what material she made it in. I think it's like a rayon material, so that it's OK. So she made those for the girls, and so we went swimming. That's how we learned how to swim. Then she said she got shunned in the community because you're not supposed to swim. She said her explanation was, you never know when Chinatown is going to be flooded. And so that was her explanation. And she just defied the rules of Chinatown, and I think I learned that from her.
Chude: You had a role model. [Laughter]
Marion: And then I remember one time I went with her to downtown, because she was afraid to venture downtown, so she had to grab one of us to go with her, because she couldn't speak English. And I remember there was a store downtown on Market Street, way somewhere on Market Street. And there was a tall counter, glass counter, and she was waiting to buy whatever she was purchasing. And she waited for the longest time because the cashier would not recognize her. And finally I noticed that she just got so angry she got the coins, and she just flapped them on the counter and just stomped out. And I just ran after her, "What's going on, Mom?" [Laughter]
Marion: She said, "I'm not gonna let them treat me like this anymore." [Laughter] And so, you know, she just got angry. So I watched her getting angry, and I said, "OK, I can do that."
Bruce: You can do that! [Laughter]
Marion: I can do that.
Bruce: So how did your family react when you went to Mississippi?
Marion: They didn't know. If they knew, they would have forbidden me to go anywhere outside of Chinatown. I didn't tell them, and I decided to — my brothers and sisters sort of knew. And I told one brother. I wrote him. I wrote him before I went, because I knew that if anything happened to me, the family needs to know. And so I wrote something down so that he could keep it for me in case anything happened to me. And that's the only indication to my family that I went down South.
Chude: But you were over 21. So you didn't need their official permission. See, I needed my parents' official permission.
[The Mississippi Summer Project of 1964 required that girls under 21 have written permission to participate from their parents. Boys under 21 had no such requirement.]
Marion: If I told them I was going down South, they wouldn't know what that means anyway. And my mother is the one who usually talks about it, and if the decision is very difficult, she would ask my father, but usually the both of them have to approve. But usually my mother is more important. And so —
Bruce: He ran the business, and she ran the family?
Marion: Yeah, right. More or less. Although he has a say too, but yeah, that's the way it goes.
Chude: He had the final say, right? I mean, it is patriarchal, right?
Marion: You know, my mother is really pretty strong. But she would ask, even if she had made up her mind, she would still ask my dad about it. "What do you think?" So it's usually her approval that's more important. And it could be because I'm a girl. Who knows? I didn't know I was going until I was back in school, so I was in Nebraska. So what I did was, I just told my family that I'm going somewhere else before I come back home after graduation. And if I explained to my parents exactly where that is, they wouldn't know. So there's only so much communication I can give them anyway. I never was home when I left. I was in college.
Chude: They were Chinese and more or less living in this insular situation. Because one of things, looking back on my life, I note is, when I was at Spelman [a Black College in Atlanta] in the spring [of 1964], how much I'm preparing my parents before I ever asked for their permission. I'm already educating them. I'm already saying, "I've heard somebody talk..."
Marion: [Laughter] That is so different! That's interesting because I'd be wasting my time if I did that, because they wouldn't know what I was talking about. It's like giving them a thesis. "OK, here. Read this in Greek." You know? "OK, when I learn Greek, I'll see it. I'll read it."
Chude: But when you came back and you spoke at the community center, did your parents come to listen? Did your siblings come?
Marion: No, because it was in English.
Chude: So you were sharing with English-speaking Chinese and perhaps other people.
Marion: Right. And I couldn't remember whether my siblings were there. I have no idea. We're kind of like separated, although we're close, but we do our own thing.
Chude: But part of it from the discussion is, you know, you certainly did have a unique mother.
Chude: Even if she paid lip service to your father.
Chude: There was still a lot of independence there. And then I think some of it's just timing. You know, we matured at a certain moment and certain opportunities were there.
Marion: And there was the Women's Movement. There was the Civil Rights Movement. You know, you had a choice. Yeah, I think one thing that enabled me to get out was not only was I interested in getting out, but my parents didn't know what was going on, and I had more freedom when they don't know what's happening.
Chude: And you had a vehicle called the Presbyterian connection to the school. Weird as it was for you to be there in Nebraska, it was a connection, and I think that's very important. Some people, they don't get out, because there's no way out. And some of us get out in odd ways, you know?
Bruce: So you have the summer of '65 and the summer of '66 in Mississippi. And those are the only times you were in the South?
Bruce: So what did you do afterwards? In '65 you came back. What did you do when you came back in '65? Did you get a job? Did you go back to school?
Marion: I was an early childhood or pre-Kindergarten teacher in Chinatown.
Chude: Would that have been Head Start?
Marion: Head Start. It started like a Head Start, yes. I was doing Head Start for four years. After that, I was still in Chinatown. I got a job as a young adult program coordinator at the Chinatown YWCA; I did that for four years.
Chude: Why were you back in Chinatown? You told us your storyline was, "I had to escape Chinatown." And you go first to Nebraska and then to Mississippi, and then you come back, and you come into Chinatown.
Marion: It was because I needed a job, and I liked the idea of teaching. And there were people there who could write a reference for me at the church in Chinatown. So that's what happened. And so I was there for four years, and then after that, another four years at the "Y." Oh yeah, I went to SF State and got my master's.
Chude: In this period, did you feel alienated? Because you were no longer quite the Chinese American you'd been before you left. I mean, so many of us didn't fit anywhere. I would assume that from what you've said that that's true of you.
Marion: Yeah. I moved out. I finally moved out of home. And I lived in the [Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco], but I didn't do anything that Haight people do! [Laughter] I even went every Sunday back to my church in Chinatown to help with Sunday School, taking the bus from the Haight. Seems like I tend to lead double-lives: S.F. and Mississippi, Chinatown and the Haight-Asbury. ... always in a marginal way!
[At that time the Haight-Ashbury district was the center of counter-culture, the Hippies, sexual experimentation and free-love, psychedelic drug use, alternative life-styles and so forth.]
Marion: But between those times, I went to Hong Kong. I lived there, and I got involved with the anti-Vietnam War when I was in Hong Kong with a group of Americans.
Chude: And did you go there in part because you didn't fit here? And you were going to see if...?
Marion: No. I really wanted to know more about my roots. And visit family and relatives and live with them.
Bruce: But you would not be allowed into China itself, because you're an American.
Marion: That's right. I wanted to go to China, but they wouldn't let me.
Bruce: So Hong Kong was as close as you could get.
Marion: Yes, that's right.
Bruce: You could look over the border. I had that experience. I was doing anti-war stuff in Asia, and Hong Kong was one of the places where I worked. You could go to this little place, and you could look over the border. It was like a tourist stop, but that was the only thing Americans could do. One of the few things the both the American government and the Communist Chinese government agreed on and cooperated on was preventing Americans from entering China.
Marion: Yeah, right. Your hands are tied. Right. I wanted to go to China to visit relatives, but I couldn't, so the relatives that were in Hong Kong, I visited. But I had the hardest time, because I don't fit in there either of course. But it was fun to see them. But I just couldn't believe the poverty, you know, what they had to live with.
Chude: Was it worse than in Mississippi?
Chude: From what you saw in Mississippi?
Marion: Yes. Good question.
Chude: When Don Jelinek in his book, White Lawyer, Black Power, refers to working around the whole issue of food [in the Deep South], he makes that point that we, in the Movement, never met the poorest, because they were not even able to —
Bruce: That's true, but I think Hattiesburg in general was not as poor as the Delta because it was not a plantation region with sharecropping, it had the big military base, and it had timber-based industries, all of which employed some Afro-Americans. Even though they tended to be in the low-wage positions their income was still way higher than that of plantation sharecroppers
Marion: That's right. That's true. Good point. And there's a university.
Bruce: When I was in Hong Kong and Kowloon, the poverty I saw was there, but it was not anywhere near — I thought it was not as bad as the poverty in Alabama and Mississippi in the sharecropping districts. That was my impression. But you were closer to it than I was.
Marion: That may be true but I haven't been to Mississippi's delta and what living conditions were like with the sharecroppers. In Kowloon, what I did remember was the high-rise cement towers that tenants lived in that reeked of stench at each floor I had to climb, and the rooms were so small. It's also the complete lack of privacy 24/7 that felt so oppressive. That was the kind of poverty that I felt there.
Chude: Still, poverty is poverty.
Marion: Yeah, it was pretty bad.
When I was living with my relatives, it was in Kowloon. And there was — it's like a flat. So the living room is also the bedroom, and there are like bunkbeds, and they normally built permanent walls and beds and cots. And so there were, God, maybe at least four people living in — the bedroom is really a bedroom/living room. The entire living-sleeping space could be about 20-feet by 20-feet. They invited me to live with them, and so one of them had to pull up a cot. And that's sort of like — there's a small table and a TV. There's a shared kitchen in the hallway where two other families live. The hallway leads to the restroom; there is no bathroom for showers. There is some space where you can do a sponge-wipe down.
Bruce: It sounds like a New York tenement.
Marion: I guess so. And then there's two other families living there in two small rooms. And so that's the living situation, but it's livable, you know? I mean, I wasn't going crazy living there, I got used to living like that. It's just crowded. My guess is [that] in the Mississippi Delta areas [where] I had never been, it's probably worse. And when I came back from Hong Kong, I talked about that, my experience in abject poverty in Hong Kong and what I saw in Mississippi. And I compared it, so people can connect a little better.
Chude: Did you view yourself as a political activist at this point? How did you identify yourself? Because when you're alienated from various groupings, where do you place yourself?
Marion: Well, everybody sees me as weird. I don't fit in. I'm always too active. I'm always talking about politics, and I don't know why I have to keep talking about it. And my family calls me the "black sheep."
Bruce: So you're in Hong Kong, what kind of anti-war stuff were you doing?
Marion: There was an American group, anti-Vietnam War group, and we were a thousand miles from Vietnam. And I said, "I'm gonna join." So that's what I did. And we just did some demonstrations. And there was actually a large contingent of Asians. I don't know if they were Chinese. I imagined they must be. There were demonstrations, so we joined them a lot. And I was a little worried, because I was putting my relatives in jeopardy at that time. I tried not to be in the limelight, but at one time, they wanted me — being one of the few Chinese in our group — they wanted me to say something after the 24-hour sit-in. So I was on television, and I was really worried. And I thought, "Shit, what am I doing?"
And then my boss — so my boss found out, saw me on television the next day and called me in, and he was gonna fire me. And when I told him in so many words what's important in this life is justice, he finally said, "Oh well, you're not that bad. I'll let you stay."
Chude: That is such a reflection though of those times, that we would just put ourselves out there in some ways. It was like the most important thing to you at that moment was justice.
Marion: It still is, isn't it? It's funny, we don't stop.
Marion: I thought maybe we retired from that. [Laughter] But I guess not.
Bruce: So after Hong Kong, you then went back to San Francisco State, right?
Marion: Yeah, I went to State. I think that's when I got my master's.
Bruce: And this would've been '67? '68? Were you there during the Student Strike?
Marion: No, later. I missed it. I missed it all. That was when I was in Hong Kong still.
Chude: So when you came back there already was some ethnic studies [at S.F. State].
Marion: I never really had ethnic studies, because I was away. But you know, it really made a difference. And I think we really need to look at '63, '64 and after as really a pivotal moment where actually the repercussions lasted up through that period. I think we need to be aware of that, that there are still repercussions. And I don't think the ripples have stopped.
I really see that in my kids. I see that. You know, it's very slow. Change comes very slowly, and you just don't know it's happening. But I see it happening. I think the internet is changing the way activists are using messages, it's just different. And then I think we need to recognize that it's still there. Injustice and justice is always gonna be around. It's just gonna be here. It's not gonna go away. It's not a linear way. Life is not linear. It doesn't stop. It just goes around and around. We do need to make a stand; otherwise, it'll get worse.
Chude: So around '69, '70, '71, somewhere in there, Asian women started organizing. As Asian women. Were you a part of that?
Marion: Yes. There was an Asian women's group that started, and I told you I have three other friends. We do everything together. Well, one is Chinese American. She was raised in Chinatown as well. But she wasn't political. She was part of a Chinese gang. She went through all this stuff, and she's a hot shit, you know? And she went through all the gang activities, and then when she went to San Francisco State — she was in Upward Bound, a new college-bound support program that helped her get away from Chinatown finally. Those of us growing up in Chinatown had a first taste of the outside world when we went to college — at least that was true for me, she and I stuck it out.
So that's how she and I met early on. We became part of a small group of Asian women in this gal's house. And we shared a lot of things, but unfortunately, for some reason, I left it. I don't remember why. Maybe it was getting more involved with other groups, anti-war or some other stuff. But we shared a lot of interesting experiences, and I realized that my experience was so different from all the others. They were just kind of surprised to hear my stories, and I was surprised to talk about it, because I don't talk about stuff. I mean, everybody — people don't know what I've done, and I didn't know that it was significant enough to say anything about it. It was just an experience, you know?
You go through life, and you just don't think it's important unless people ask you, so nobody asked me. So I just went through life, like many of you too probably, after the Civil Rights activity, I think many of us were sort of like, "What do we do from here?" And I was even more subdued, because my community never knew about it, and if they knew, they didn't know how significant it was and didn't know how to ask me about anything. So it just went dormant. Not that I wanted to, but I didn't think it was important.
Chude: But this is an interesting thing. Again, this whole question of how to ask people about their experiences. You know, like you going to Nebraska and nobody knows how to ask you about it. You come back from Mississippi, and you're here, and nobody knows how to ask you about it. And unless we're organizing, and unless we're organizing conferences or recruiting people or collecting clothing, we don't know how to talk about it. I mean, I know that in '64, '65, back at college, I did a lot of speaking about the Movement, but I didn't talk about myself. And what I had experienced.
And then yes, then all of a sudden at some point it gets buried. It gets like you don't quite know what to do with it, and you move on. But at least at this point then, even if you didn't continue with a group of Asian women talking about being Asian women, you still had a stronger sense of your identity, right?
Marion: Yes. Yeah, yeah.
Chude: And then you did anti-war work and other — Were you ever a Leftie, as such?
Marion: I don't know what that means. [Laughter] Everybody sees me as a Leftie. My family sees me as a Leftie. I guess. What's interesting about my family is that all my sisters are now active as docents for Chinatown, so they talk about the history of Chinatown. And I thought, maybe I had something to do with spilling some —
Bruce: Do they still live in Chinatown?
Marion: No, no. But they're active with the Chinese Cultural Center where they get paid to do tours. They can do tours on food. They can do tours on something else. And I said, "Did you ever do tours on Civil Rights." "Yeah, of course we did." I said, "OK, that's good, I guess you sisters are Chinese Civil Rights workers." [Laughter] I never knew that. And so, you know, it runs in the sisters. The sisters in my family are pretty strong.
Chude: So when did you marry?
Marion: When I was like in my thirties.
Chude: Did you marry a Chinese man?
Marion: [Laughter] Not the way I was going! I don't mind marrying someone who's Chinese, but there wasn't anyone who could match me. [Laughter]
So when — how did I meet him? Oh, I was in Chinatown working at the YWCA. And Bill walks in because I was looking for an architect to make up a room in the basement of the YWCA to work with gangs. I wanted the gangs to walk in there and hang. [Laughter] I don't know what I was thinking, but that's what I was thinking. They've got to have a place to hang out, and I wanted them to go there, and we wanted to just work with them. And so I was trying to be this pseudo-social worker. So in order to get the place fixed up, I just needed someone who could work on it. So one of the tutors who was an architect said, "Let me see if I can find somebody in my office to do that." So she brought in Bill, and that's how I met him.
Chude: And he was white.
He was white. And he lived in North Beach [a neighborhood adjacent to Chinatown]. He had a Chinese roommate. And so that's how we met. We didn't get married for four years. Four years later, I told my mom, I want her to come have tea with me and Bill, and she didn't even have to ask why. She just knew that we were gonna get married. She said, "It's about time." And my mom said, "Oh, it's OK, he's white. That's fine. Is he good person? He's fine. As long as he's a good person." And I was surprised that she allowed that. But she's known him for four years.
Chude: And he wasn't unconnected to the community. I think that's one of the — I mean, I've used the term for myself as marginal. He was another marginal person, because he was a white person living partly in the Chinese community. And so you would've had that place to connect.
Marion: But he would love this place [referring to Bruce's loft], You know why? Tall ceilings. It was sort of similar to how I met him. He was off Broadway Street, just off Broadway in this steep street, so steep that you had to have stairs going down. I think you know the place. It's on Kearney Street. And he lives in this unit, apartment, where it's sort of similar. It's kind of long. The ceilings were not that high, but what he did was he painted the ceilings black, to make it look like it's endless. And he had these weird, was it black? Black rug running all the way down, so you don't know that there's a floor or ceiling.
Chude: So we have another weird person. Weird meets weird. [Laughter]
Marion: He's an amazing architect to this day. I think he's great.
Chude: Do you think that within the Chinese community that you grew up in that they were racist against African-Americans?
Marion: No. I was watching my parents, and they had no clue. And they had no ups and downs about it. They don't know. They just don't know. And there's no animosity or negativism. When I went to Mississippi and came back, and they knew by that time that I was working with Blacks, they didn't care.
Chude: The issue was never whether the person was white or Black but that you were moving out of the Chinese community?
Bruce: So all non-Chinese are equal. Equal in being non-Chinese.
Marion: Yeah. [Laughter] I've got to remember that. [Laughter] Unless they treat you otherwise, then you're angry at that person. So thank God my parents didn't have any qualms about it.
Bruce: Yes, well, in the Jewish community it's somewhat similar, but not to that degree. It's, "Well, what does it mean for the Jews?" That's all. [Laughter] At least in my parents' and grandparents' generation.
Marion: So, soon after my experience in Mississippi, I had all kinds of people coming in to the house. My Mom said, "OK, that's all right."
Bruce: What did the neighbors think?
Marion: By that time we were outside of Chinatown.
Bruce: Oh, you were already at the hotel place.
Marion: No. It was after the hotel; years later, we moved to an apartment in the greater Nob Hill area. Nob Hill became a mixed neighborhood then, and lower-middle class lived by the higher-end neighbors, and I never see the higher-end neighbors except through their car windows whenever they come and go from their high-rise apartments.
Bruce: In Chinatown, the farther up the hill you go, the less poor you are. Once you start going up the hill from Stockton, the rents start going up.
Bruce: But also, I think Marion that your parents were cut off from social/political current events in the United States, so they had no opinion about interracial, Black/white dating, about civil rights, because they were in a Chinese world.
Bruce: I assume they watched Chinese news on the TV.
Bruce: Which probably gave very little coverage to the Civil Rights Movement. And the culture was just not one where the issues of interracial dating were very hotly debated, or very tense, as it was in the rest of America, both among whites and among Blacks. The civil rights politics was very intensely debated. Housing segregation. Chinatown was the Western United States' original ghetto in the sense of, "We're gonna take people by their race and say they can only live here," right? Well, that whole housing issue was a huge burning issue in the '60s in California, but nobody ever thought about it in terms of Chinatown, because it was China here.
Marion: Yes. In many ways Chinatown was conveniently ignored until there is "gang activity," then the whole world suddenly focuses in. Chinatown S.F. has always been the one place where it is the city's most dense neighborhood, according to U.S. Census. Do you see any wide green grassy areas? It may well be the most densely populated community west of Manhattan, I hear. The below-poverty rate in Chinatown has been 23% [compared] to the City's 12%. At the same time, though, today's Chinese politicians are bringing a strong voice to past discriminations and injustices in housing and to social issues including gender issues. But going back to the past, to my family in Chinatown, I didn't think about other races back then. And it's true that the only view of civil rights issues was from watching television and Chinese newspapers.
Chude: Well, and the idea of a family which you can bring home friends. This is another key thing that I think makes a difference. I came from a family where I could bring home people. I know families where the mother — the food was always on the table, and you were always welcome. And then there are other people who grew up in homes where there was not that kind of bring people home, and of course, there were people who were embarrassed about bringing people home. But I think it makes a difference, just in terms of understanding us and this question of "Why you? Why a young woman from Chinatown goes first to Nebraska and then to Mississippi?"
I had an African-American woman once ask me, "Why me?" A whole lot of white girls didn't go, you know? So the why? And I do think there are aspects of it that have to do with the mother, and having a strong mother, because we're females. And I think people who — at least individuals were welcomed into our homes. I think that's important.
Marion: I hadn't thought of that.
Chude: You, Bruce, come from a politically active family, so it's a different dynamic.
Bruce: But it was the same in the sense that the people in our family's social circle were a wide variety, interracial. We had Black people come to the home. We had Gentiles, Jews. Latinos, maybe Asians. I don't know. There weren't that many Asians active in the L.A. Left, but there probably were some, and they probably came through our house.
Chude: And your parents were in a mixed marriage in the sense that he was a white Anglo WASP and she was Jewish. And both their families were unhappy that they got married to each other. So you're a child of that, whereas Marion and I are both people who then married outside our groups. And have kids who are mixed.
Chude: White folks have had this way of being able to pretend that certain people aren't different. And it could get quite extreme. I knew a Southern white guy who went and worked in the Congo and ended up marrying a woman who was part Congolese and part Belgian. And they came back through New York to go down and meet his family, and she was clearly not white. The family first of all kept her more or less indoors, but they just pretended she was [white]. So there is that quality that if somebody's light skinned and can have the manners and stuff, everybody can pretend that again, you're one of us, and we don't need to address the differences.
Marion: Interesting, yeah.
Chude: I mean, I just over-generalized, but I did see that. I've seen that more than once. And in trying to understand my own trajectory, it is one of the things that I'm aware of, is that I never knew I lived in segregated communities, because if there was a Black family who seemed just like the rest of us, how would I think it was segregated?
Chude: [I've had] to rethink the question of growing up, because an interviewer asked me about racism. [One question was] "What were your experiences with African-Americans? What did you know about African-American culture?" Everybody in this society grew up with racism, so she asked how were you racist? Boy, that's a good one to have looked at.
Marion: Wow, yeah.
Chude: It makes you very uncomfortable when you start going back and you say, "OK, here I was thinking about..." You know? But the angle is different, so now I've been working on an answer for her, because I've also, since I'm a writer, I would much prefer to write it.
Chude: I used to speak to interviewers, but it's not like you're going to get a transcript. They might or might not bother to send you whatever they do with it, but you'd feel exhausted afterwards. You give them all this stuff, and then it disappears. So I've learned to like write it, and then she'll call me up and ask me the nuance questions. And that'll push me to think more.
Chude: But this whole question of what do you know? Well, you know, you came from a Chinese American community that was pretty insular. I came from a primarily upper middle class white community that was insular.
Marion: That was insular, yes.
Chude: Now, the way the leftists do it, somehow I'm bad, and you're good, because you came from a poor Chinese community, and I came from a white community. But if we can step back from the value judgments, we can start to look at these questions like insular, which is a word you used. I grew up in an insular community. I didn't know beans about anything. So then the question becomes, how did you end up in the Southern Freedom Movement? What is your trajectory that gets you there? And one of them is that my parents would have been, and ultimately showed it, but would've been completely accepting of a person of color who was of the same class and went to my church.
Marion: Hmm. [...]
Chude: Jewish, no.
Bruce: No, definitely not.
Chude: Because you didn't go to my church.
Bruce: I mean, you have to have some standards. I mean, c'mon!
Chude: Well, no. I mean, there was a man in our church who'd been Jewish.
Bruce: Yeah, I know.
Chude: But he changed his name and became an Episcopalian, and he married a Gentile. And so he was part of our community. But it's just interesting that, stepping away from value judgments and just looking at how does it work? When we were growing up, there wasn't the same kind of television, and there sure as hell weren't the books. And like you, I was not from a Lefty family, so there was a whole lot of both history and reality that I knew nothing about. It doesn't make me bad or good. It's reality.
Marion: No, right, right.
Bruce: Yeah, it's the reality.
Chude: But it is part — how does racism work, if we're talking racism? Well, it's because there's this invisible place that's underneath things that so many of us don't know about. You know, you wouldn't have known, for example, growing up that there were certain limits on choices for your Chinese American families to live. You wouldn't have known what Bruce brought up about what he calls red-lining. And yet, you were living in a community that was tight and highly concentrated, in part intentionally because of who owned the properties.
Marion: Yeah. Right. It's like a concentration camp. It's no different, except that you think you're free to come and go, but it's not that easy. In your head, it's not that easy.
Bruce: Right. And your parents weren't free to come and go outside the language barrier.
Bruce: So in a way, that language was a fence.
Bruce: And they had to take a guide, like you, to go to Market Street.
Marion: Yeah, yeah.
Chude: But one could even ask, if they had learned English, how far could they go out?
Bruce: They could go out for work. They could go out to shop. But they could not go out to live.
Chude: OK. And even the work would've been limited, in terms of what kind of jobs.
Marion: Yeah, there are still limits.
Bruce: Oh yeah, yeah.
Marion: Some limits, yeah.
Bruce: But they could've opened a store, for example.
Bruce: And eventually, you know, I don't know for sure, but my guess would be it wasn't until the '60s that Chinese were able to start moving out into the Richmond and into the Outer Sunset. Maybe the late '50s.
Marion: I remember for sure in the '60s — '70s that we were naming the Richmond district as the other new Chinatown.
Chude: But it is interesting in the South, there were both individual Jewish families that had stores in many small little towns, and I gather there were also in various places, individual Chinese families, right?
Chude: Again, they existed in this little, like you were talking about, middle place. Were they white? Were they Black? It depended on the community, and I guess it depended a lot on also who they were. But I read something once about it from a Jewish girl who grew up in one of these towns where she was the only Jewish girl, only Jewish family, and they ran a store, and it was called the Jew Store.
Marion: Oh wow!
Chude: And I wouldn't be surprised if the Chinese store was called something, you know?
Marion: [Laughter] Wow! Yeah, most likely a Chinese name would go on that store, but in phonetic English. Then people would still call it "the Chinese store."
Chude: Because that's who they were. You know, so they grew up being unique, in the same way that once you joined the Movement, you became unique. And as you said, you had choice. I mean, I thought that was so interesting, just to finish up, that you understood that you had choice. You could choose Black, or you could choose white.
Marion: Yeah. Yeah, I was like, "God, this is amazing. I can do that."
Chude: And you knew exactly where you stood.
Marion: Oh yeah, yeah.
My added thought on racism: is that I talked about growing up having been insulated and isolated from the mainstream. I was ethnocentric. Everyone is ethnocentric. We can only see the world, in the beginning, through our own culture colored glasses ... or race colored glasses. We had to start from somewhere! And it's often having to start from our own value system, from our own biases first. I then added and embraced the multiculturalism to my life experience.
We often don't give ourselves, or each other, that permission: to be who we are without fear of being accused of being racist. It's communicating with sincerity and open-mindedness; it's also speaking up truth to power on injustice, about standing up for what's right and what's wrong. I don't mean to imply that I have a lot of patience towards bigots, however. I'm working on being more aware of what there is to be aware of. Civil rights does that.
[END OF TRANSCRIPT]
Copyright © Marion Kwan, 2016
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