Manzanar Committee Statement On The Passing Of UCLA Professor Emeritus Alexander Saxton

Alexander Saxton
Photo courtesy
UCLA Department
of History

LOS ANGELES — The Manzanar Committee expresses its deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Alexander Saxton, who passed away on August 20, 2012, in Lone Pine, California, at the age of 93.

Saxton, a UCLA History Professor Emeritus, former Acting Director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center (UCLA AASC) and former Chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee of the UCLA AASC, was a tremendous supporter of Asian American Studies.

“[Saxton’s involvement with the UCLA AASC] turned out to be one of the most demanding [and rewarding] experiences of my life,” he said, according to a statement issued by David Yoo, Director, UCLA AASC. “Being a proponent of Ethnic Studies at UCLA in the 1970s and ’80s was good combat training.”

“There still was big opposition to Ethnic Studies on grounds that ranged from blatant racism to lack of high academic principle,” he added. “We constantly had to fight for approval for research funding and core courses, and we remained endlessly involved in struggles over initial appointments and tenure promotion for scholars committed to Ethnic Studies.”

“A labor organizer and novelist, Saxton brought a depth of humanity and passion for social justice to his distinguished career as a historian,” said Yoo.

Saxton’s book, Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (1975), became one of the seminal texts in the field of Asian American Studies.

“Alex’s path-breaking book, The Indispensable Enemy, changed how historians thought about early Asian immigration and labor organizing,” said Valerie Matsumoto, UCLA Professor of History. “He was a brilliant, rigorous scholar, a generous colleague, and an inspiring teacher who mentored an enormous number of graduate students.”

In April 1989, Saxton blasted then-UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young for his failure to grant tenure (permanent faculty appointment) to then-Assistant Professor Don T. Nakanishi in an op-ed piece published in the campus newspaper, the Daily Bruin.

At the time, Nakanishi was in the third year of a battle for tenure, in which he fought racial discrimination within the UCLA Graduate School of Education, and the UCLA administration.

In the editorial, Saxton railed against the racial discrimination and procedural irregularities found in Nakanishi’s tenure case, and stated that Young’s denial of tenure was “sadly contradictory” with his previous support for Ethnic Studies.

“By writing that op-ed piece in the Daily Bruin, Saxton took a big risk, even though he was tenured faculty,” said Gann Matsuda, a member of the Manzanar Committee who was a UCLA student activist in the late 1980’s, and worked on the Nakanishi Tenure Case. “He could’ve had his research funding slashed, he could’ve been kicked off prestigious faculty committees—they could’ve made the rest of his career at UCLA a living hell. Reprisals against faculty who are considered to be troublemakers aren’t exactly uncommon at colleges and universities, including UCLA.”

Saxton’s biting criticism came at a critical time in Nakanishi’s tenure battle, and it helped push the University to finally grant tenure in late May 1989.

“In spite of the risks, Professor Saxton didn’t hesitate,” Matsuda stressed. “He made the first public statement by a tenured faculty member that supported Don Nakanishi and called out Chancellor Young. He took a principled stand, one that sent shock waves through the UCLA faculty, and embarrassed the UCLA administration, helping put Chancellor Young between the proverbial rock and a hard place.”

Upon his retirement, Saxton moved to Lone Pine, and became a frequent participant at the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, held at the Manzanar National Historic Site, approximately eight miles north of Lone Pine, in the 1990s.

“The Manzanar Committee continues to stand on the shoulders of those who paved the way, such as Professor Saxton, who played such a tremendous role in field of Asian American Studies, not to mention in educating our youth,” said Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Kerry Cababa. “Professor Saxton was a pioneer, a dedicated researcher and educator, and an outspoken advocate for justice. We extend our deepest appreciation to his family and friends for his devotion to our history. He will be missed.”

The Manzanar Committee is dedicated to educating and raising public awareness about the incarceration and violation of civil rights of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II and to the continuing struggle of all peoples when Constitutional rights are in danger. A non-profit organization that has sponsored the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage since 1969, along with other educational programs, the Manzanar Committee has also played a key role in the establishment and continued development of the Manzanar National Historic Site.

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2 Responses to Manzanar Committee Statement On The Passing Of UCLA Professor Emeritus Alexander Saxton

  1. Dave Hall says:

    Good man. Nice commentary. Looking at Arizona and its current war on ethnic studies and multiculturalism today, we can see that much work still needs to be done to defend what Professor Saxton fought for so many years of his life. The battle must go on and will thanks to the Professor and other activists.

    DAVE HALL, MA
    Asian Studies
    CSU Long Beach

  2. Selma CAlnan says:

    I knew Alex for a brief time, but he had such a warm personality I feel I knew him forever and have lost a member of my family.

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