“I Wanna Be Just Like Yuri Kochiyama”

YuriNo activist is an island. In fact, solidarity between communities in parallel pursuit of justice has always formed the heart of effective intersectional advocacy. If anyone embodied this relentless pursuit of human rights solidarity, it was activist Yuri Kochiyama, 93, who died in her sleep Sunday in her Berkeley, Calif., home.

Kochiyama’s life was a story of activation and advocacy. In the days following Pearl Harbor, the self-described “red, white and blue” Japanese American found herself abruptly interned at Santa Anita, Calif., and later Jerome, Ark., by the U.S. government. This, just shortly after the sudden death of her father, a community leader, following his investigation by the FBI and imprisonment without medical care, left Kochiyama painfully aware that racial tensions previously kept quiet had at last come “up to the surface.

In her family’s post-war move to New York City, Kochiyama again encountered racism, this time in the stories of her coworkers at the African American restaurant where she worked as a server. Speaking for the nonprofit organization Densho’s oral history archive, she recalled:

… for the first time, it made me think more what America was about, the segregation. Then I got really interested and wanted to find out everything I could about what black people have gone through. And it made me ashamed when I could think of Asians were just as racist as whites towards blacks, anyway. That changed me.

From there, Kochiyama became involved with efforts of the civil rights movement in New York City, initiating a short friendship with Malcolm X that ended with his assassination in February 1965. Among the photographs that ran in Life were images of a young Kochiyama, who held the dying Malcolm X’s head as she pleaded, “Please, Malcolm! Please, Malcolm! Stay alive!”

Her activism continued undaunted. Kochiyama advocated for nuclear disarmament and hibakusha (survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). She appeared alongside Puerto Rican nationalists at the Statue of Liberty in 1977. In 1988, she played a key role in the passage of the federal Civil Liberties Act, which officially apologized for Japanese American internment and offered reparations to survivors’ families.

To the very end, Kochiyama’s actions testified to the power and importance of connection and collaboration between different activist groups. In her story is the proof that activism is, at its core, devoted to justice for all. In their eponymous song dedicated to the late activist, the Seattle-based hip-hop duo Blue Scholars got it right when they declared, “When I grow up I wanna be just like Yuri Kochiyama.”

Photo courtesy of dignidadrebelde via Creative Commons 2.0

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James Hildebrand is a senior at Amherst College and editor-in-chief of the independent student blog AC Voice.  He is interning this summer at Ms. magazine.

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