Working outside the System

By Lum, Lydia | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, February 9, 2006 | Go to article overview

Working outside the System


Lum, Lydia, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Yuri Kochiyama's life has taken her from Japanese-American internment camps to Malcolm X's side in his last moments.

Every January, the nation pauses to celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holding just as much meaning for many is Feb. 21, the anniversary of Malcolm X's untimely death. Among those who last saw him alive is a Japanese woman who cradled his head as he lay dying from gunshot wounds in New York City's Audubon Ballroom in 1965.

That woman, Yuri Kochiyama, is one of many whose social, political and civil rights activism was inspired by Malcolm X. She is one of the few non-Blacks often associated with him and has forged multi-ethnic coalitions, especially between Asian Americans and Blacks. An 84-year-old Nisei - American-born child of immigrant parents - Kochiyama is one of the most prominent Asian American activists who emerged from the 1960s. She has championed human rights, protested racial inequality and supported political prisoners worldwide, often doing mundane but important behind-the-scenes work. Interned during World War II, Kochiyama has likened the ordeal to the segregation of Blacks.

Kochiyama is so well known for her warmth and sincerity that Dr. Diane C. Fujino refers to her by first name in Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama, a biography of the activist published last year. A University of California, Santa Barbara associate professor of Asian American studies, Fujino says she is glad Kochiyama has diverse supporters.

"Every Black radical and nationalist I've met embraces Yuri," Fujino says. "And in Yuri, young Asian Americans learn about someone who looks like them, but has worked completely outside the system."

LESSONS IN DISCRIMINATION

Born Mary Nakahara in 1922, Yuri was raised in a small port town near Los Angeles. Her youth was a sheltered, middle-class existence in a White neighborhood that included sports and teaching Sunday school.

But that suburban life was shattered after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. FBI agents arrested her father at home in a mass roundup of "suspects" whom they believed threatened national security. Held at a federal prison, her father was denied medical care. By the time he was sent home the following January, he could no longer speak. He died the next day.

Not long afterwards, the U.S. government ordered Yuri, her mother and brother to leave their home. They were moved into a horse stable in Southern California, and by October, into a Jerome, Ark., internment camp where they would stay for the next three years. Like other Japanese Americans, they were forced into a life so communal that even bathrooms lacked privacy. While interned, she met her future husband, Bill Kochiyama, a Nisei soldier fighting for the United States. Many Japanese-American soldiers like Bill chose to take their furloughs at the camp because they felt uncomfortable at mainstream USO facilities.

The couple married after the war. In Bill's native New York, the only apartments they could afford were in Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods. In 1960, they moved to Harlem, where Kochiyama learned from co-workers and friends about the Jim Crow laws of the South and racial discrimination nationwide.

While raising six children, she began participating in the civil rights movement and joined demonstrations organized by the Congress of Racial Equality and other groups. …

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