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White Supremacy and the Alien Land Laws of Washington State

by Nicole Grant

In 1960 a member of the Washington State Committee for the Repeal of the Alien Land Law delivered a campaign speech highlighting, among other things, the injustice done to one Japanese American family because of the legislation. “In 1948,” the speaker recounted,

“four brothers, all Americans of Japanese ancestry, all honorably discharged veterans of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team of Japanese American volunteers that has been described as the most decorated unit in American military history for its size and length of service, purchased a plot of land in Southern California on which to build a home for their widowed mother. … These were the Masaoka brothers, five of whom volunteered for combat service from behind the barbed wire enclosures of government internment camp. … One brother was killed in action, another 100% disabled, with two others also wounded in action. Between them, the five brothers were awarded some 30 individual decorations and awards. … And yet, when they purchased this land and presented it to their mother, the State of California escheated, or in more understandable language, took away, this land on the legal grounds that their mother could not own land in that State because she was … an alien ineligible to citizenship. She could not even receive land in her old age on which to build a home and live out a most useful life with money paid for from the military service of her five sons.”1

This speech, which was delivered on numerous occasions across Washington State, pivoted on the dichotomy of Japanese American patriotism, demonstrated by the wartime sacrifice of the five brothers, in the midst of the social and legal exclusion that the alien land law represented for the Japanese American community.

As old as the state itself, alien land laws were enshrined in the Washington State Constitution and later elaborated upon in legislation and pivotal court cases that resonated nationally. Simply stated, these laws prohibited land ownership by residents who were ineligible to citizenship. Despite the fact that their language contained no direct reference to race or ethnicity, the underlying goal of these laws was clearly the disenfranchisement of non-white immigrants. In Washington State, the laws specifically targeted Chinese and Japanese, but they also impacted Native Americans, South Asians, Koreans and many other groups.

This paper will describe where the alien land laws came from and explore why they were so hard to remove by focusing on four historical periods: the settlement of Washington Territory, the framing of the State Constitution, World War II, and the civil rights period of the 1960s. In each era, white supremacist ideology was employed against various racial groups in order to justify the actions of the elite in business, government, and in war.

Origins of the Alien Land Laws

In 1853 a swath of land was carved out of the Oregon Territory and named Washington Territory. The first territorial governor, Issac A. Stevens, did not waste any time in attempting to create a new frontier for America that could one day vie for statehood. In 1855, he negotiated treaties with Native American tribes in western Washington. Arguably the first “land laws” in Washington, Stevens’ primary goal with these treaties was to remove all Native Americans to reservations and make their land available for white settlement.2Thus continued a trend in which whites imbibed with a sense of entitlement would strive to dominate the land and cement property rights as a cornerstone of their race privilege.

The first alien land law in Washington territory passed in 1864. Contrary to the laws which would later stop Asians and others from owning land, this first law held that any non-citizen could own land “in like manner and with like effect as if such an alien were a native citizen of this Territory or of the United States.”3 The object of this law was the peopling of the territory with whites in order to displace Native Americans. With the Indian Wars of the 1850s still fresh on its mind, the territorial government urgently sought to increase white immigration, in the form of homesteading, to consolidate the Territory as white man’s land. Accompanying this imperative was the need to accelerate economic growth. At the time, extractive industries such as fishing and forestry dominated the local economy. Capital investment was needed to further these industries as well as develop mining and saw mills which would require very expensive machinery. In addition, money and labor was needed to build the railroads that would link the isolated territory to markets in the rest of the nation. Industry leaders and government officials alike hoped to court foreign investors through liberal alien land laws that favored foreign corporations as well as individuals. Indeed, within ten years the alien land laws expanded to allow aliens, regardless of their residence, to “acquire, hold, use and dispose of railroads, tramways and bridges.”4 The laws worked. The Territory’s population more than doubled from 11,000 to 23,000 in the 1860s.5 Washington Territory had gone from “nowhere” and “Indian country” to a frontier settlement with white farmers and merchants and cities budding throughout the state.

However, with growth and progress came new problems and resentments among whites. In his article, the “Alien Land Movement of the Late Nineteenth Century,” historian Douglas Nelson sums up the feelings of rural farmers and workers during this period nicely:

“In the latter decades of the nineteenth century the Western farmer found himself faced with a multitude of problems, many of which he only half-understood. The railroads which he had enthusiastically helped to build all too frequently turned out to be inconveniently located or prohibitively expensive. … Even the weather, the final arbiter of his success or failure, proved to be disastrously unpredictable. Underlying and aggravating all these specific complaints was a general and almost uninterrupted trend towards rising costs and falling prices.”6

The angry farmer could blame the weather, but he could not punish it. Chinese workers, on the other hand, could be punished. It was they and foreign investors that caught the wrath of Washington’s frustrated white workers of the late nineteenth century, both in the passing of new prohibitive alien land laws and, for the Chinese, mob violence.

First arriving on the U.S. mainland in significant numbers in 1848, Chinese immigrants were drawn by the California gold rush and soon expanded out to other Western cities.7 In Washington State, mining, salmon canning, and agriculture attracted Chinese workers. As work dwindled between seasons, many came back to Seattle’s “China Town.” In the spring of 1886 this ethnic enclave was enveloped and destroyed by a mob of disgruntled whites. Perceiving Chinese workers as a threat to their economic interests and generally harboring hatred of differences in culture and appearance, hundreds of whites rioted against the small Chinese population, temporarily displacing the community from the city.8

The hatred that ignited the anti-Chinese riot similarly imbued the drive for restrictive alien land laws that would culminate in the racist provisions of the Washington State Constitution. In fact, in the same year as the riot, a new law was passed by the territorial legislature that barred “aliens ineligible to citizenship from owning land.”9 It is important to note that while Washington Territory was extremely isolated, its particular brand of white supremacy did not evolve in a vacuum. As early as 1870, anti-Chinese race riots were breaking out in Los Angeles and throughout California. The idea that some aliens were ineligible to citizenship based on their race was commonplace. The Immigration Act of 1790 prohibited Asians from naturalization and in 1875 Congress amended section 2169 of the revised statutes of the United States regarding naturalization to explicitly state that citizenship be available only to “aliens [being free white persons, and to aliens] of African nativity and to persons of African decent.”10 Thus Asian immigrants were not to become American citizens under any circumstances.

By eschewing the “whites only” language of the naturalization laws, alien land laws were written in seemingly race neutral terms. The statute that was finally adopted in 1889 as Article Two, Section 33 of the Washington State Constitution read,

“The Ownership of lands by aliens, other than those who in good faith have declared their intention to become citizens of the United States, is prohibited in this state, except where acquired by inheritance, under mortgage or in good faith in the ordinary course of justice in the collection of debts; and all conveyances of lands hereafter made to any alien directly, or in trust for such alien shall be void: Provided, That the provisions of this section shall not apply to lands containing valuable deposits of minerals, metals, iron, coal, or fire clay, and the necessary land for mills and machinery to be used in the development thereof and the manufacture of the products therefrom. Every corporation, the majority of capital stock of which is owned by aliens, shall be considered an alien for the purposes of this prohibition.”11

The upper classes generally supported the Chinese and defended them during the Seattle riots. They saw the need for laborers on the rails and in the mines and knew that Chinese could often be forced to work for less than whites, driving all wages down. Plus, some upper-class whites had business and personal relationships with the Chinese merchant class in the city, in addition to personal servants with whom they interacted. Working-class organizations like the Populists, Progressives and Knights of Labor, on the other hand, tapped into the resentment of white workers and famers and feverishly propagated the anti-Chinese hysteria and spearheaded campaigns for anti-alien land laws.12

The Knights of Labor in particular was responsible for the anti-Chinese riots. Daniel Cronin, a carpenter from California and Knights of Labor organizer, used his ability as an orator to foment the mass hysteria necessary to take the anti-Chinese movement from a group of “milling and disorganized Sinophobes” to an organized mob. Cronin’s Knights of Labor, along with the populists and progressives subscribed to an ideology that historian Carlos Schwantes labels “disinheritance.” White settlers felt a sense of entitlement, a notion that they should rightfully inherit the riches of the Northwest Territory. But by the late nineteenth century many working-class whites instead saw themselves as disinherited due to the rapid growth of corporate monopolies and the Chinese workers who they saw as unwelcome competition.13 This ideology, shared by most of the self-proclaimed leadership of the working class, ignored the basic fact that the Washington working class was multiracial and that the true class interests of white workers lie in their defense of non-white workers. Sadly, the call of that century’s seminal document of working class empowerment The Communist Manifesto, “Workers of the World Unite!” was disregarded by the Knights of Labor, who preferred an emotional and alarmist appeal to the fear and racism of their constituencies.

The alien land laws were not promoted with racism alone. The issue of individual land holdings by non-whites was mixed with plebian opposition to foreign land lords and corporate investors. Thus a melded ideology, which romanticized settler, do-it-yourself tenacity and the fantasy of a whites-only, homesteading utopia, linked the two issues. White supremacy also allowed European immigrants to reinvent themselves as privileged American “whites” by divesting themselves of their national identity, for instance their Irishness or Germanness, and elevated them to a dominant social position.14The popular hatred towards the Chinese that this kind of thinking resulted in led not only to laws prohibiting land ownership but ultimately to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited further Chinese immigration nationally.15

In its journey from Territory to State, white supremacy in Washington transitioned from that of a primarily anti-Native American character to a primarily Anti-Chinese character. The impetus of this transference of racist white entitlement was the effective neutralization of Native American interests by the treaty system. Redirection of that energy towards Chinese workers was led by politicians who claimed to represent working class interests. Washington State’s early adoption of alien land laws occurred due to an amalgam of the anti-corporation alien land laws that were gaining popularity nationally and the virulent anti-Chinese racism that first gained momentum in California and quickly spread up the West Coast.

Anti-Japanese Racism and the Second Wave of Alien Land Laws

While the Chinese Exclusion Act essentially put an end to Chinese immigration for the time being, it did not end employers’ desire for low wage labor in Washington State. With nearly seamless transition, Japanese immigrants were encouraged to come to the West Coast to work in many of the same industries that Chinese labor once dominated.16 But the racism targeting the Japanese bore a different character, one not just of felt white superiority but also of white jealousy. It was the appearance of Japanese success, in farming and business, which enraged many whites.

In comparison to their Chinese counterparts, Japanese immigrants acted less like sojourners and more like settlers. This pattern occurred for a number of reasons. Prominently among them, Japan was becoming an important economic and military force internationally. The intervention of influential Japanese diplomats helped assure the rights of Japanese living in the United States in a way that the Chinese did not benefit from. For instance, Japanese women were allowed to migrate with their husbands.17 Immigration by Chinese women had been severely restricted because single males needed less to get by on and could be paid less and forced to move throughout the region in search of seasonal work. Regardless of their ethnicity, all women who emigrated from Asia were treated with disrespect by white society at large and often were regarded as prostitutes.18

Japanese men were also employed as migrant laborers in the same industries as earlier Asian immigrants, but many Japanese families were different from earlier ethnic groups because they pursued agricultural labor in order to be able to settle in a community so that their children could attend school and the family could establish community ties with their Japanese neighbors. Getting started as farm laborers, many became farmers themselves, leasing their own plots of land and selling their own crops.19 In woodsy western Washington, Japanese involvement on the farm often started in the logging stages.20 When no whites would touch the logged land chock full of stumps, Japanese farmers would lease and clear that land to make farms. Subject to the alien land laws that prevented outright ownership, first generation Japanese, known as Issei, got their land by contract, share, or lease.21Later, their American born children would hold land in their names.

Japanese in Seattle also formed an ethnic enclave called Nihonmachi where they set up an array of shops and businesses. By 1910 there were 70,000 Japanese and 3,000 Japanese owned businesses in the United States, a ratio of one business for every 22 people. With hotels, restaurants, barber shops, pool rooms, tailors and shoe shops, the Nihonmachi in Seattle represented a self-sustaining economic community. 22

All this success was met with white hostility, and this time the most vocal leader of the racist exclusion movement was not a member of the working class, but a wealthy publisher named Miller Freeman.23 From 1909 until years after World War II, Freeman’s numerous publications, including the Town Crier and the Pacific Fisherman, spewed a nearly constant tirade against the “unasimilable Japanese.”24 The largest and most mainstream organization that opposed Japanese land ownership was the America Legion. It used the “moral” argument that Japanese were taking the jobs of returning soldiers and farming land to which these soldiers were somehow entitled. The heat against Japanese residents in the Northwest sparked into flame during the economic crisis that followed World War I.25

The period from 1914 until 1924 was for Western Washington one of immense social tension and agitation, when many factors came together to affect the outcome of the Alien Land Law issue and the fate of Asians in the state. World War I was the axis around which the world revolved at this time. On the one hand, Japan and the U.S. were allies in the war. This fact had a calming effect on relations between whites and Japanese.26 In addition, the Seattle General Strike of 1919 represented the pinnacle of radicalism for organized labor in the region and brought with it a sense of class consciousness that allowed workers to see past the red herring of race hatred that had characterized the movement for so long. Organized Japanese barber shop and restaurant workers went on strike and sent delegates to the General Strike Committee, albeit without voting rights because they were not AFL members. The fact that the Nihonmachi closed during the strike was an act of solidarity that improved race relations in the working-class.27 After the strike, in 1920, during U.S. House of Representatives hearings on Japanese immigration, key strike leader E.B. Ault, editor of the Union Record, came out in defense of Japanese residents stating, “Personally, I have little patience with the racial prejudice which is attempted to be introduced in the question.”28

On the other hand, the end of America and Japan’s wartime alliance, plus hostile reactions to the General Strike, brought problems for Japanese immigrants. In the alien land law section of his dissertation on the Governorship of Lewis Hart, Douglas Pullen describes the social mood in 1919 as one of great fear of foreign influence. Between the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the military advances of imperial Japan the “American super patriots” had plenty of ammunition to propagate violence towards “non-Americans,” a group that included “Blacks, Jews and other ethnic groups.”29

The post WWI period would prove particularly painful for Washington’s Japanese farmers as the conservative ideological war on immigrants, radicals and anything deemed “un-American” began to increasingly focus on dispossessing Japanese of their land. The 1919 gubernatorial election was essentially a contest of which politician could convey more enthusiasm in curtailing the rights of Japanese residents.30 When all this political jockeying turned to criminal attacks on the farmers, the White River Valley Japanese community was one of the hardest hit. A crime wave that included serial robberies of old women and arson attacks which leveled barns and destroyed entire farming operations began in 1919 and continued into the early 1920s.31

In 1921 the state legislature passed the first Alien Land Law since the framing of the state constitution in 1889. The new law was directed at the state’s Japanese population and ushered in a new era of government-sponsored white supremacy. This new law in fact went further than the constitutional prohibition by taking away the right to lease or rent land.32 Introduced into the Legislature in 1920 by Miller Freeman’s Anti-Japanese League of Washington and the American Legion, this law was similar to a law passed in California that year that was designed to tighten California’s 1913 Alien Land Laws. The Washington law did not get enough signatures to make it onto the 1920 ballot, but anti-Japanese State Representatives took measures into their own hands and took the bill to the legislature with the following introduction: “I have noticed the alarming situation by reason of the foothold that aliens, and especially Japanese, are acquiring our agricultural lands. For the purpose of prohibiting and stopping this evil I have drawn a measure which prevents aliens owning land.” 33 The bill passed overwhelmingly. A victorious Miller Freeman addressed the Japanese community:

“The people of this country never invited you here. You came into this country of your own responsibility, large numbers after our citizens supposed that Japanese immigration had been suppressed. You came notwithstanding you knew you were not welcome. You have created an abnormal situation in our midst for which you are to blame.” 34

Japanese farmers were immediately forced to scramble to keep their croplands. Some went from leasing to acting as contract farmers. Others renewed their leases for a maximum amount of time before the law took effect. The most popular tactic, for those who could afford it, was to take the land they had been farming under lease and buy it in their American born (Nisei) children’s names.35These methods worked for a time but the white supremacist forces that had sponsored the law in the first place were intent on seeing its purpose fulfilled, and in 1923 the state legislature added another law that would close these “loopholes.”36 The 1923 law made it so that land put in the name of a child would be considered to be held in trust for the “alien.”37 Thus families had to take the further step of putting the children’s land in the trust of a white lawyer. Despite all the maneuvering to keep their land, many families lost it and the overall number of Japanese farms plummeted from 699 in 1920 to less than 250 in 1925. In the long run, however, these laws were not able to permanently remove the farmers. By 1930 the number of Japanese farms was back up to 523 and five times as many were actually owned by Japanese Americans now because so many leasees were forced into buying land for their children.38

Additional Legal Battles Impacting Immigrant Land Rights

Immediately after the alien land law took effect in 1921 it was challenged in court by Frank Terrace, a great friend to the Japanese community. In open defiance of the new laws, Terrace declared that he intended to lease some of his land to a Japanese family. He claimed he opposed the alien land law because it “illegally revoked some rights of property owners. It prohibited aliens from following common occupations. It violated state and federal constitutions. It violated existing treaties between the U.S. and Japan.”39 Terrace vs. the State of Washington went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Terrace lost. This case held national significance because it called into question whether or not the law violated the 1911 “most favored nation” treaty between the United States and Japan. The fact that the treaty was not considered to override the alien land law bolstered the validity of such laws across the nation and created serious diplomatic tension between the United States and Japan.40

Yet after further challenges in local courts, the alien land laws soon began to falter. Charged with violating the laws, Kiichiro and Sumi Kosai were acquitted after the Court found they had committed no fraud by putting land in the name of their Nisei children and the children in the trust of an adult Nisei and white attorney.41 This was just one of dozens of Washington cases that ended this way.

In another example, State vs. McGonigle, fifteen Japanese farmers were able to obtain land by acting as contract laborers. This case is noteworthy because initially McConigle and the Japanese contract laborers were found guilty of conspiracy to subvert the Alien Land Law. However, shortly after the verdict was reached, juror F. F Merritt told the judge that she had not actually been convinced by the prosecutor and voted with the other jurors under duress. After a new trial, the defendants won.42

Sadly, these rays of hope in the state courts were over shadowed by anti-Asian legislation and court cases being decided on the national level. Pivotal to the effectiveness of alien land laws against Asians was the fact that they were not eligible for citizenship based on their race. In 1922 Japanese immigrant Takeo Ozawa fought for his right to citizenship based on the fact that he was in every way a model member of American society. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court where the Court conceded that in most respects Ozawa was an ideal candidate for American citizenship: he spoke English, practiced Christianity, and supported prohibition. However, he was not white, and in 1922 this was what counted most.43

Two years later, the Immigration Act of 1924 would end Japanese immigration. This act of Congress prohibited the immigration of virtually all aliens ineligible to citizenship. While not coming out and actually saying “No more Japanese,” the act was implicitly targeted at the Japanese. Chinese immigration had already been virtually halted in 1882 by the Chinese Exclusion Act and while Koreans, South Asians and others were affected, they were not then major sources of immigration like the Japanese. In fact, the purpose of the law was stated explicitly V.S. McClatchy, publisher of theSacramento Bee and the leader of California’s Anti-Japanese League, in testimony to Congress on the issue:

“Of all races ineligible to citizenship, the Japanese are the least assimilable and the most dangerous to his country. … With great pride of race, they have no idea of assimilating in the sense of amalgamation. They do not come to this country with any desire or intent to lose their racial or national identities. They come here specifically and professedly for the purpose of colonizing and establishing here permanently the proud Yamato race. They never cease to be Japanese.”44

In 1937, another alien land law was passed, buttressing the Washington land laws of the 1920s and providing a grim outlook for Japanese farmers. The definition of “Alien” was clarified as meaning “non-citizens of the United States … who are ineligible to citizenship by the United States.”45 This spelled out the fact that the 1924 Immigration Act meant no more Asian immigration, which meant no more land for Asian immigrants already in the United States.

Significantly, the 1937 amendment to the alien land law was struck down in 1941 by the efforts of Filipino activists. In De Cano vs. State of Washington, the court found that the addition of people “who are ineligible to citizenship by the United States” included Filipinos. Under federal law, Filipinos were not considered “Aliens” nor were they eligible for naturalization.46 By the 1940s, tens of thousands of immigrants from the Philippines were living in western Washington. A politically active community, many Filipinos worked in unionized jobs and knew exactly how important it was to fight for their rights. Just as Filipino cannery workers played a leadership role in improving working conditions for all canary workers, the De Cano case played an important role in disabling a portion of the alien land laws for the benefit of all those affected.47

The Washington Movement to Repeal the Alien Land Laws

On Tuesday, August 30, 1960, United States Senator Warren G. Magnuson (who had supported internment during WWII) stood before Congress and delivered a speech designed to garner support for the repeal of the alien land laws of Washington state. “I am convinced,” Magnuson stated,

“that these antialien land laws helped substantially to create the prejudices which were fanned by hysteria in 1942 into and incident that has been described as ‘our worst wartime mistake.’ I have referenced to the mass military evacuation of 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, regardless of citizenship, age, or sex from their homes into interior interment camps.”48

Magnuson was a prominent figure in a movement that encompassed Japanese American groups, church organizations, politicians from both political parties, and hundreds of sympathetic individuals.49

At the core of this movement, which organized as the Committee for the Repeal of the Alien Land Law, was the Seattle chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). A national organization based in San Francisco, the JACL was formed in 1929 with the goal of fighting for Japanese civil rights at all governmental levels.50 The JACL was not what anyone would call a radical organization. Recalling its role in the evacuation of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans to internment camps during WWII, one JACL member observed, “It seemed to me, the JACL was far more efficient in administering the process of evacuation than in organizing against it.”51 Nonetheless, it was the main political lobby for Japanese American rights in the U.S. after the war and by 1960 had successfully led the movement for the repeal of California’s alien land laws.52

The movement in Washington State was part of a broader, national movement underway for over a decade to remove racist statues from state laws. In fact, Washington was one of the last states in the country with its alien land laws still intact. The origin of the white supremacist alien land law movement, California, had its own legislation repealed by vote in 1956.53 Oregon’s law was fought through a court battle and repealed in 1949 when it was found that the law violated, “The principles of law which protect from classification based upon color, race and creed.”54

With support from the Republican and Democratic parties, the Seattle City Council, and even from unlikely sources such as the American Legion and other historical adversaries for Japanese Americans like the Washington Association of Realtors and Washington State Grange, the repeal movement anticipated an easy win for Senate Joint Resolution No. 4 repealing the alien land laws on the 1960 ballot.55 Instead, they were shocked by an overwhelming defeat. The measure lost with only 466,750 votes for and 565,250 against.56 Committee members attributed the loss to several factors. As Mike Maoaka wrote to the Pacific Citizen, committee leaders

“Expected heavy favorable majority in Seattle-Tacoma area to overcome anticipated opposition from country territories failed to materialize. Last minute whispering campaign that repeal would relieve aliens from paying property taxes added to confusing situation leading to defeat… Lack of organized opposition made difficult task to interest and educate electorate to significance of proposition… But most crucial, according to JACL leaders who spearheaded repeal campaign, was latent prejudice against aliens that asserted itself inside polling booths. Some of these leaders concede too that recent unpleasant incidents in Japan may have evoked some anti-Japanese feelings. Others suggest that voter reaction might be construed as voter lack of confidence in Japanese American minority, while still others acknowledge that touted acceptance of group is not as substantial as considered by many.”57

The opposition to the repeal was indeed ephemeral. While the section of the official voters pamphlet “For” the repeal lists dozens of supporters, the opposition “Against” the repeal lists only State Senator David McMillan of Coleville, WA. What is more, a note at the bottom of the pamphlet states that despite the fact that state law requires at least one state senator and at least one state representative to write an argument for or against a constitutional amendment, “After exhaustive contacts were made, only Democratic State Senator David McMillan of the 1959 Legislature was willing to submit an argument against Senate Joint Resolution No. 4.”58

McMillan’s argument in the voters pamphlet contained the same type of appeals to “American Heritage” that had been used by Miller Freeman’s Anti-Japanese League back in the 1920s but without any specific mention of race (similar to the way conservatives today frame their white supremacist opposition to Mexican immigration). Regardless of its linguistic neutrality, hundreds of thousands of white voters in Washington State must have read McMillan’s appeal to “Protect your American Heritage and preserve it for future generations” and believed he was speaking for them.59

Determined to see the alien land laws repealed, the JACL Committee on Abolishing Restrictions on Land Ownership quickly reorganized after the initial defeat and began planning for the 1962 elections. A March, 1962 letter to the Committee’s supporters attributed the last failure primarily to the fact that “voters of the state did not comprehend the reasons for that repeal measure,” a significant change of tune from the earlier analysis that widespread racism was the problem.60 This time, the movement for repeal went an extra step in their campaigning by appealing to the European immigrant community with letters to the various European, especially Scandinavian, consulates in the state that noted, “It is certain that many of these Scandinavians, probably several thousand, have bought their own homes or other property, in good faith, without realizing that they have done so in technical violation of the land law, and thus in all probability have a faulty title to their property.”61

It is doubtful that the European immigrants were ever in any serious danger of escheatment of their properties, but as Senator Magnuson declared in his speech to Congress in opposition to the alien land laws,

“We are aware of the warning by the late Justice Robert H. Jackson that discriminatory laws are ‘like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.’ In other words, so long as there is legal sanction of the kind provided in section 33, in another time of hysteria and hate it may be used as the pattern for discrimination against an American minority. No American can be secure in his civil rights so long as legal justification for bigotry remains in the statutes.”62

With over seventy endorsements, including several from influential union leaders, Senate Joint Resolution No. 21 to repeal the prohibition of alien land ownership from the State Constitution went to a vote on November 6, 1962.63 Again it failed. The JACL once more attributed the results to “prejudice,” noting in particular the disappointing results in King County, the most “liberal” county in Washington State. By now the JACL was beginning to seriously consider whether it would be possible for a repeal campaign to succeed under their leadership. Some within the JACL felt that perhaps a white organization would have to come to the fore of the movement in order for a victory to be achieved.64

The JACL and its supporters decided to sit out the 1964 election, which saw the rejection of “Open Housing” in Seattle and Tacoma, but returned in 1966 with another Proposed Constitutional Amendment on the ballot. Certainly a lot had changed by 1966. Domestic opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam had intensified and the Civil Rights Movement had reached its pinnacle in the South and was spreading to the Northern States with increasingly radical rhetoric. This time the voters pamphlet pro-repeal statement took a firm stance that the laws were a serious embarrassment to the state and were having a negative impact on international trade. The first name on the long list of endorsements was that of Boeing Company President William Allen.65 For the third time in a row David McMillan was the sole endorser of the “against” statement. His blurb was mostly unchanged since its original appearance on the 1960 ballot with the exception of a defensive squib that was added:

“I do not see how we discriminate against anyone with our Alien Land Law. No issue is raised as to the color or to country of origin to obtain citizenship. The deciding factor in owning land is: Are you or are you not a citizen? National security could be jeopardized with excessive alien land ownership.”66

Fear tactics non-withstanding, the repeal movement captured its long awaited victory against the racist alien land laws in 1966. Asian immigrants making their way to Washington State in the new wave of immigration ushered in by the 1965 Immigration Act would no longer have to jump through hoops to own homes or buy land.


Washington State, like the rest of the United States, has a vein of white supremacy that has pulsed through its history, puncturing the veneer of democracy and equality in times of crisis. For over seventy years, Washington’s alien land laws represented one such branch of white supremacy that dictated who could and could not enjoy these emerald lands based on the color of their skin. In addition, the laws further stigmatized Asians as “aliens,” a dehumanizing way of looking at people that sets them apart as “others.”

By facing our region’s racist histories with open eyes, we can better see how the effects linger today, in order that next time we are faced with the social challenges of unemployment, inflation and war we do not repeat the pattern of blaming problems endemic to the profit system on the most vulnerable members of society.

Indeed, today the specter of anti-immigrant hostility is being faced anew. This time the “aliens” are mostly Mexican and Mexican American. Looking at the way the United States has repeated history by starting an unjust war in Iraq and how profiteers have driven the economy into the ground with debacle after criminal debacle, such as the Enron scandal, it is not surprising that the nation finds itself mired in brutal, anti-immigrant scapegoating once again. For the duration of Washington State history, immigration and fear of an “alien” takeover have been used to bolster militarism, like the degradation of Japanese that helped justify U.S. actions during WWII, including the formation of interment camps. Racism has also inhibited working class consciousness and solidarity by turning white workers’ grievances away from their exploiters and towards other workers of a different race, such as was done to the Chinese during the anti-Chinese riots of 1886.

With the economic need for cheap and degraded immigrant labor again in a tug of war with the bigoted frustration of native-born Americans who see their quality of life plummeting, it is time to seriously reckon with the history of white supremacy. Shall we repeat it and re-enact the ritual of passing new anti-immigrant legislation, with the same intended purpose as the alien land laws, or shall we transcend it. A popular chant heard at immigrant defense rallies today rings true, “Unemployment and inflation are not caused by immigration! Forget it! Get off it! The enemy is profit!”

Copyright © Nicole Grant 2008 HSTAA 498 Winter 2007

1 Washington State Committee for the Repeal of the Alien Land Law, 1960 Campaign Speech, Japanese American Citizens League Papers, UW Special Collections. Acc #919, Box 12

2 Carlos Schwantes, The Pacific Northwest, An Interpretive History(University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 125

3 Mark Lazarus, “An Historical Analysis of Alien Land Law: Washington Territory and State: 1853-1889,” University of Puget Sound Law Review, Issue 12, 203

4 Lazarus, 211

5 Lazarus, 206

6 Douglas W. Nelson, “The Alien Land Law Movement of the Late Nineteenth Century,” Journal of the West, 1970, Vol. 9, Issue 1, 46

7 Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (Little Brown and Company, 1989), 86

8 Schwantes, 156

9 Lazarus, 220

10 Charles McClain, Japanese Immigrants and American Law: The Alien Land Laws and Other Issues (Garland Publishing Inc, New York, 1994), 30

11 Washington Constitution, Article 2, Section 33, 1889

12 Nelson, The Alien Land Law Movement of the Late Nineteenth Century, 54; Douglas Pullen, The Administration of Washington State Governor Louis F. Hart 1919-1925, PhD Dissertation, University of Washington, 1974, 226

13 Carlos Schwantes, “Unemployment, Disinheritance, and the Origins of Labor Militancy in the Pacific Northwest, 1885-86,” Western Historical Quarterly, October 1982

14 George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit form Identity Politics (Temple University Press, 1998), 3; Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 13

15 Takaki, 14

16 David Neiwert, Strawberry Days, How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community (Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 14

17 Takaki, 46

18 Takaki, 47

19 Neiwert, 24

20 Neiwert, 12

21 Takaki, 188

22 Takaki, 186

23 Neiwert, 20

24 Pullen, 234

25 Pullen, 233

26 Pullen, 227

27 History Committee of The General Strike Committee, The Seattle General Strike of 1919, March, 1919

28 U.S. House of Representatives, Japanese Immigration, Hearings before the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, part 4, hearings at Seattle and Tacoma, July-August, 1920, (Washington, 1921), 1413-1425, from Pullen, 239

29 Pullen, 228

30 Pullen, 235

31 Stan Flewelling, Shiakawa: Stories from a Pacific Northwest Japanese American Community (University of Washington Press), 2002

32Heather Macintosh, “Washington state legislators pass the Alien Land Law in 1921,” Historylink, Last accessed October 19, 2006 at

33Flewelling, 72-73

34 Neiwert, 63

35 Flewelling, 75

36 Macintosh, 1

37 1923 Washington Law 220, Wash. Rev. Code Ann. Section 64.16.050, in Lazarus, 236

38Neiwert, 64-66

39 Flewelling, 74

40 Raymond Buell, “Some Legal Aspects of the Japanese Question,” Harvard University Press, from Charles McClain Ed., Japanese Immigrants and American Law (Garland Publishing, 1994), 39

41 Flewelling, 76

42 Flewelling, 78

43 Ozawa v. the U. S., No.1—Oct. Term, 1922, “Supreme Court of the Untied States” found in Charles McClain, Japanese Immigrants and American Law: The Alien Land Laws and Other Issues (Garland Publishing Inc, New York, 1994), 31

44 Ichihashi, Japanese, 303, found in Takaki, 209

45 Act of March 19, 1937, ch. 220, section 1, found in Lazarus, 236

46 Lazarus, 243

47 Micah Ellison, “The Local 7/ Local 37 Story: Filipino American Cannery Unionism in Seattle 1940-1959,” Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, [local_7.htm] Last accessed November 19, 2006

48 Warren Magnuson, “Proceedings and Debates of the 86thCongress, Second Session,” reprinted by the Committee for the Repeal of the Alien Land Law, Japanese American Citizens League Papers , UW Special Collections. Acc #217-6, Box 14

49 Incoming Letters, Japanese American Citizens League Papers , UW Special Collections. Acc #217-8, Box 12

50“The History of the JACL”, from the JACL official web site last accessed November 20, 2006

51 Frank Miyamoto, quoted in Neiwert, 133

52 “The History of the JACL”, from the JACL official web site last accessed November 20, 2006

53 Alien Land Laws,Legislative Council 1961 Session, Special Report No. # 3, Japanese American Citizens League Papers , UW Special Collections. Acc #217-6, Box 14

54 Namba v. McCourt, Supreme Court of Oregon, 185 Ore. 579, 204 P. 2d 569, March 29, 1949, Found in Daniel Johnson, “Anti-Japanese Legislation in Oregon, 1917-1923”, Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 97, No. 2

55 Endorsement List for Senate Joint Resolution No. 4, November 8, 1960 election, Washington State Committee for the Repeal of the Alien Land Law, Japanese American Citizens League Papers , UW Special Collections. Acc #217-6, Box 14; Official 1960 Washington State Voters Pamphlet, 18, Government Archives at University of Washington Suzzallo Library

56 Mike Masaoka to Harry Honda and Pacific Citizen Newspaper,Japanese American Citizens League Papers , UW Special Collections. Acc #217-6, Box 14

57 Mike Masaoka to Harry Honda and Pacific Citizen Newspaper,Japanese American Citizens League Papers, UW Special Collections. Acc #217-6, Box 14

58 Official 1960 Washington State voters Pamphlet, 19, Government Archives at University of Washington Suzzallo Library

59 Official 1960 Washington State voters Pamphlet, 19, Government Archives at University of Washington Suzzallo Library

60 Tak Kubota, Letter to friends of the JACL’s Committee on Abolishing Restrictions on Land Ownership, Japanese American Citizens League Papers , UW Special Collections. Acc #217-6, Box 14

61 William Mimbu, Seattle JACL letter to Consulates and Other Foreign Government representatives in Seattle.

62Warren Magnuson, Proceedings and Debates of the 86thCongress, Second Session, reprinted by the Committee for the Repeal of the Alien Land Law, Japanese American Citizens League Papers , UW Special Collections. Acc #217-6, Box 14

63Official 1962 Washington State voters Pamphlet, 16, Government Archives at University of Washington Suzzallo Library

64 Committee on abolishing Restrictions of Land Ownership, Minutes, November 12, 1962, Japanese American Citizens League Papers, UW Special Collections. Acc #217-6, Box 14

65Official 1966 Washington State voters Pamphlet, 18, Government Archives at University of Washington Suzzallo Library

66Official 1966 Washington State voters Pamphlet, 19, Government Archives at University of Washington Suzzallo Library