History of ACJ

Who was Vincent Chin?

On June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin was beaten with a baseball bat. Vincent died four days later, on June 23, 1982. At the time, the American Auto Industry was in a crushing recession and much of the hostility was directed at Japan and Japanese auto imports. Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese American who was celebrating his bachelor’s party in Detroit. On the night of the murder, he was visiting the Fancy Pants strip club with his friends. Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz, two white auto workers, began to harass Vincent with racial epithets and a fight broke out. That’s when dancer Racine Colwell overheard Ebens say,

“It’s because of you m*ther f*ckers we’re out of work!”

Ronald Ebens, 1982

Vincent Chin Portrait

When the men were thrown out of the bar, Ebens and Nitz retrieved a baseball bat from their car and Vincent Chin ran away. After a half-hour pursuit, the men surprised Vincent in a parking lot. Nitz held Vincent down while Ebens beat his head four times with the bat. The impact cracked Vincent’s skull and he died four days later in the hospital.

On March 18, 1983, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz pleaded guilty to killing Vincent Chin. Judge Charles Kaufman sentenced them to 3 years probation and fined them $3,780. Explaining the light sentence, Judge Kaufman stated, “These arent’ the kind of men you send to jail. You fit the punishment to the criminal, not the crime.” Neither man spent a single day in jail for beating Vincent Chin to death.

“These aren’t the kind of men you send to jail. You fit the punishment to the criminal, not the crime.”

— Judge Charles Kaufman, Wayne County Circuit Court

Newspaper article
The brutal murder and light sentence outraged the Asian American community. In Detroit on March 31, 1983, Asian Americans founded the American Citizens for Justice to lobby for a federal trial for Chin’s murderers. The campaign was spearheaded by journalist Helen Zia, Lawyer Liza Chan, and Lily Chin – Vincent Chin’s mother. Rallies in Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and elsewhere awakened Asian American communities and attracted national media attention.
Support group rally in 1983.

Photo by Victor J. Yang

The national API mobilization succeeded in winning a federal trial. On June 5, 1984, federal prosecutors charged Ebens and Nitz with violating Vincent Chin’s civil rights. After 23 days of deliberation, a Detroit federal jury acquitted Nitz but found Ebens guilty of violating Chin’s civil rights. At last, after 2 years of struggle, justice came for Vincent Chin. Defense lawyers appealed the verdict to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and won a federal retrial for Ebens and Nitz, which was moved to Cincinnati. On May 1, 1987, the jury acquitted Ebens and Nitz of violating Vincent Chin’s civil rights. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz never spent a full day in jail for the murder of Vincent Chin. Crushed by the failure of the justice system, Lily Chin left America and returned to China. Although the movement for a federal trial did not gain justice for Vincent Chin, the movement gave a resonant political voice to Asian American communities across the nation. The murder of Vincent Chin was a seminal event that sparked the Asian American civil rights movement. In his death, Vincent Chin is to this day a symbol of the Asian American struggle for acceptance.

Why do we remember Vincent Chin?

Although it was over 40 years ago, Vincent Chin’s death was a landmark in the history of the Asian American community. His death and the activism that followed:

40th Commemoration team at the Rest In Power mural.

40th Commemoration team at the Rest In Power mural:  Helen Zia, James Shimoura, Roland Hwang.  (Photo by Roland Hwang)

  • Underscores the importance of multiracial coalitions
  • Initiated the APA Victims and Civil Rights movements
  • Allowed families to testify during sentencing
  • Helped create mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines
  • Created understanding of the danger of changing venues in trial
  • Allowed hate crimes against Asian Americans to be prosecuted at the federal level
  • Emphasized the importance of education and awareness in preventing hate crimes
  • Helped form American Citizens for Justice in 1983