Rest in Power, Yuri Kochiyama: A Civil Rights Hero Who Inspired a Generation

June 1, 2014

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Yuri Kochiyama speaks at an anti-war rally in Central Park in 1968.
Yuri Kochiyama speaks at an anti-war rally in Central Park in 1968. Photo credit: The Kochiyama Family / UCLA Asian American Studies Center

I’m hearing reports through my networks that Yuri Kochiyama, the incredible civil rights hero whose life of dedicated work to social justice inspired a generation of young activists including myself, passed away last night at the age of 93. The reports are still unconfirmed nationally, although sources close to Kochiyama’s family are confirming her passing.

Yuri Kochiyama was a hero and an icon to me.

Yuri Kochiyama was a survivor of a Japanese American internment camp in rural Arkansas, where she encountered the heinous racism of the Jim  Crow South. In an interview with Kochiyama  published in Fred Ho‘s Legacy to Liberation, Revolutionary Worker writes that it was the parallels between her own experiences as a Japanese American with the mistreatment of Black People under Jim Crow that first propelled Kochiyama towards social justice work. Throughout her life, Yuri Kochiyama worked as a member of both the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Liberation Movement, but she also devoted her energies to causes like freeing political prisoners domestically and around the world. She is often cited for her work with the Black liberation movement, through which she had a brief friendship with Malcolm X. She was at Malcolm X’s side when he died of a gunshot wound on February 21, 1965.

But, for me, what makes Yuri Kochiyama a legend and an inspiration was the philosophy that fueled her life of dedication to social justice efforts.

Yuri Kochiyama was a radical activist who believed, first and foremost, in energizing others towards action and activism. She was deeply troubled by social iniquity wherever she saw it, and she believed in finding common cause across any sociopolitical divide. She believed that all of us — including and particularly Asian Americans — had both the power and the duty to uplift ourselves and our fellow men and women towards the goal of racial and gender equality.

In her own words, from Legacy to Liberation:

 I’ve spoken to kids as young as second and third graders. A school here in Harlem – the teachers were both Black and white, but the students were all Black – asked if I would come and speak to them about Malcolm X. And I couldn’t believe how much these second and third grade students already knew about Malcolm. But it was because their parents knew about Malcolm. And I’ve spoken to junior high schools, one in Greenwich Village. I’ve spoken to about six high schools and to colleges all over the country, and the enthusiasm and interest of the students, regardless of what age, has amazed me. And it’s been very, very heartening. They really are interested. They really want to change society. They want it to become a better society than they are living in now.

What I would say to students or young people today. I just want to give a quote by Frantz Fanon. And the quote is “Each generation must, out of its relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it.”

And 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. But there are enough issues that we could all work together on. And certainly support for political prisoners is one of them. We could all fight together and we must not forget our battle cry is that “They fought for us. Now we must fight for them!”

Yuri Kochiyama was my hero. Yesterday, I wrote about the 12 year anniversary of Reappropriate; this blog would not have been built had I not been inspired as a student by Yuri Kochiyama’s life of activism, and the work of other civil rights legends in her generation.

Today seems a little darker without Yuri’s light in the world.  But I think Yuri would be the first to want us to mourn her passing by rededicating ourselves to the fight; by finding our missions; by learning from each other; and by vowing to never let our battle cries fall silent.

Thank you for your life, and the legacy you left for us, Yuri Kochiyama. Rest in power.

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2 thoughts on “Rest in Power, Yuri Kochiyama: A Civil Rights Hero Who Inspired a Generation

  1. I hope the day will come when every American kid, or at least every Asian American kid, knows about the likes of Yuri Kochiyama and Fred Korematsu.

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