The murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese autoworker, by two white men was a seminal moment in Asian American civil rights activism. In 1982, a Chinese American man named Vincent Chin was murdered in a racially motivated hate crime by two white autoworkers. Around this time, many working in the auto industry around the country were impacted by recession, leading to unemployment. Simultaneously, Japanese auto manufacturers were a growing presence in the U.S., fueling strong anti-Japanese sentiment. The attackers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, mistook Chin as Japanese and blamed him for the difficulties faced by (white) American auto workers. Ebens and Nitz were initially charged with second-degree murder but after a plea bargain they were both convicted of manslaughter. They were sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to pay a $3000 fine. Neither Ebens nor Nitz spent a day in jail.
After a lenient sentence was granted to the Vincent Chin’s murderers and the subsequent outcry from the Chinese community, the organization American Citizens for Justice (ACJ) was formed in Detroit. Their immediate goal was to get justice for Vincent Chin. Judge Kaufman, who oversaw the case, wrote in a letter addressed to American Citizens for Justice, and protesting the sentence: ‘These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail.” This response angered the Asian American community in Michigan, leading to further demands for a retrial of both Ebens and Nitz. At the very least, the organization ensured the murderers were sentenced to settlement payment. Chin’s murder also inspired the ACJ to combat other forms of anti-Asian discrimination and violence throughout the United States. This was a critical turning point in civil rights engagement for Asian Americans, especially those living in Michigan. Chin’s murder brought Asian Americans together to form multiethnic and multiracial alliances to organize for civil rights. This case also established pan-racial coalitions, as the case received support from organizations representing a variety of racial groups, including the NAACP.
According to Roland Hwang, co-founder and president of American Citizens for Justice,
The Vincent Chin case forced Asian Americans into the civil rights discourse. The Vincent Chin case transformed a biracial discussion on race relations to be a multiracial one. So the Vincent Chin case, along with other cases, each serve as a wakeup call to address anti-Asian bias and racial intolerance.
Statement by Roland Hwang. Scrapbook of Articles and Information on Vincent Chin (1983)American Citizens for Justice. Box Number 4. Bentley Historical Library. University of Michigan.
In order to better contextualize Michigan-based AAPI activism, the pages that follow briefly address the significance of Vincent Chin’s murder on activism within the Asian American community, while acknowledging the long history of Asian American activism in the United States. Here, we have created three thematic pages: (1) broad history of Asian American activism; (2) activism at University of Michigan prior to Chin’s case; and (3) Vincent Chin’s influence on activism in the Asian American community in the State of Michigan.
Statement by Roland Hwang. Scrapbook of Articles and Information on Vincent Chin (1983). American Citizens for Justice. Box Number 4. Bentley Historical Library. University of Michigan.
Organizations Supporting ACJ. Vincent Chin Case, Articles and Aftermath (Folder 2). American Citizens for Justice. Box Number 4. Bentley Historical Library. University of Michigan.
ACJ Letter to Supporters on Future Endeavors and Development. ACJ Organizing Efforts 1983-1986. American Citizens for Justice. Box Number 4. Bentley Historical Library. University of Michigan.
Official Statement of American Citizens for Justice. Vincent Chin Case, Articles and Aftermath (Folder 2). American Citizens for Justice. Box Number 4. Bentley Historical Library. University of Michigan.