In response to the recent election of Donald Trump, we wanted to highlight a woman of color revolutionary to celebrate and remember the power of political resistance. There always have been and always will be people fighting against injustice. Because of them, we can. This post was originally published on May 20, 2016.
by Abaki Beck
Yesterday was the 95th birthday of radical Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama, who passed away in 2014. (Yesterday was also the birthday of Malcolm X, who Yuri became friends with in the 1960s). She is known for her strong advocacy on a variety of civil rights causes and her allyship with other communities of color.
Yuri was born and raised in California to Japanese immigrant parents. Tragically, when she was a child, her father was arrested by the FBI for suspicion of being a national security threat and died shortly after his release. Soon after, Yuri and her family were forced to move to a concentration camp in Arkansas after President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the forcible relocation of over one hundred thousand Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants during World War II. She met her future husband while interned, who she later moved to Harlem with and had children. Her life as an activist began by joining other parent-activists in Harlem in the 1960s.
Yuri soon became a prominent human rights activist, and was involved with many revolutionary movements, including black liberation, the struggle for Puerto Rican independence, and advocacy for political prisoners. Her relationship with Malcolm X helped to radicalize her and honed her focus on black nationalism and black rights in the 1960s. In the 1980s, her and her husband fought for the passing of the Civil Liberties Act, which was a formal apology from the U.S. government to Japanese American internees. It was signed into law in 1988. She was also a staunch advocate for justice for political prisoners, and founded the David Wong Support Committee which worked for fourteen years for the exoneration of an undocumented immigrant who was wrongly convicted of murder of a fellow inmate.
In addition to her activism, she taught English to immigrant students and volunteered at soup kitchens and homeless shelters in New York City. Yuri is an outstanding role model and inspiration not only as an activist, but as an ally to other communities of color. She teaches us that it is crucial to stand up for oppressed folks, and important to continually learn and engage with new communities.
But it is best to learn from Yuri, from Yuri. Thus, here are some of Yuri’s words of wisdom:
“I think today part of the missions would be to fight against racism and polarization, learn from each others’ struggle, but also understand national liberation struggles — that ethnic groups need their own space and they need their own leaders. They need their own privacy.”
“My priority would be to fight against polarization. Because this whole society is so polarized. I think there are so many issues that all people of color should come together on, and there are forces in this country who want this polarization to take place.”
“Unless we know ourselves and our history, and other people and their history, there is really no way that we can really have positive kind of interaction where there is real understanding.”
“Remembering what happened, not to my happened to my father, but to Japanese as a whole, I see similar things that happened to other ethnics. Years later, I would see that these kind of things happened to others all along, all the time, especially to blacks.”
“Political philosophy is not just something you obtain, it’s something that you develop through your lifetime. And of course, as different events happen to you and different people you meet and writings that you read, your philosophy is going to change.”
Passing it On: A Memoir by Yuri Kochiyama. UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press; Second Printing edition (January 1, 2004)