This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present.
May 19th marks the 100th anniversary of a pair of 1921 events that together embody the worst and best of American history, the most exclusionary and inclusive visions of our collective identity. On May 19, 1921, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act (also known as the Johnson Quota Act, after its author Congressman Albert Johnson of Washington), the first truly national immigration law and one that was designed entirely to discriminate against immigrants deemed less desirable through a white supremacist lens. The law especially targeted arrivals from Southern and Eastern Europe, paralleling the restrictions already placed on immigrants from Asia by the more focused 1917 Immigration Act. While initially framed as a temporary response to an immigration “emergency,” the law was made permanent by its immediate sequel, the Immigration Act of 1924 (or Johnson-Reed Act), which made such discriminatory quotas the basis of federal immigration policy for more than four decades.
Arguing for that 1924 extension of the 1921 Emergency Quota Act, South Carolina Senator Ellison DuRant Smith made plain the exclusionary intent and behind these laws. As he put it,
Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock; certainly the greatest of any nation in the Nordic gbreed. It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries, but a country to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood that has made America the foremost Nation in her progress and in her power.
These first truly national immigration laws were not simply about limiting arrivals from particular nations and parts of the world; they were also an effort to substantiate a specific, mythic, white supremacist vision of America’s history and identity.
That same exclusionary logic was behind another federal policy created two decades later: Japanese Internment. As General John DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command that helped organize the internment camps, put it at a 1943 news conference, “A Jap’s a Jap. It makes no difference whether the Jap is a citizen or not…I don’t want any of them here.”
These internment camps were the catalyst for the efforts of one Japanese American activist; in addition to the date of the Emergency Quota Act, May 19th also marks the 100th birthday of Yuri Kochiyama, who was one of the hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans interned in the camps. Kochiyama’s activism across her long and inspiring life exemplifies an inclusive vision of American community.
Kochiyama was born Mary Yuriko Nakahara to two Japanese immigrants, Seiichi and Tsuyako Nakahara, in San Pedro, California. Mary’s first couple decades of life were very typical of an early 20th century American childhood: as a teenager she taught Sunday school at her family’s Presbyterian Church; she was the first female student body officer (class vice president), as well as a journalist and tennis player at San Pedro High School, graduating in 1939; and she received a degree in English from Compton Junior College in 1941. But her and her family’s lives changed drastically after Pearl Harbor, and indeed long before internment. Her father, who had just returned from a hospital stay for ulcer surgery, was arrested by the FBI on the same day as the Pearl Harbor attack for suspicious ties to Japanese officials (such as the ambassador to the U.S., Kichisaburō Nomura). He was detained for six weeks before being cleared, his medical issues worsening all the while, and on January 21, 1942, the day after his release, he passed away.
That family tragedy would be extended after Executive Order 9066. Yuri and her family were removed not long after the order, first spending a few months at the Santa Anita Assembly Center (sleeping in a converted horse stable) and then being interned for three years at a camp in Jerome, Arkansas. Yet Yuri turned that internment experience from exclusionary and isolating to inclusive and connecting, building on her prior experiences to help create a multilayered Japanese American community. She organized her young Japanese American Sunday school students, known as the Crusaders and spread across multiple camps, to send letters and care packages to Japanese American soldiers, including Yuri’s twin brother Peter. The packages enhanced the feeling of community for those at the camps as well as soldiers, an effect amplified when Yuri printed some of the soldiers’ replies in her Jerome camp newspaper column, “Nisei in Khaki.” And they also led to a turning point in Yuri’s own life, as she met and married one such soldier, Bill Kochiyama.
Over the remainder of the 20th and into the 21st century, Yuri and Bill would pursue civil rights and political activism on behalf of both their own and many other communities. During the civil rights era they joined Asian Americans for Action, a pioneering group founded in 1969 in New York City (where the couple had moved after the war) and modeled on the Black Panthers, and helped spearhead the group’s antiwar and anti-imperialist efforts. And Yuri and Bill’s subsequent work on behalf of restitution for internment was critical to the move toward the 1988 Civil Liberties Act. In the early 1980s, the couple helped organize Concerned Japanese Americans and East Coast Japanese Americans for Redress, advocating for making New York a site for one of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) hearings. They succeeded, and at the 1981 hearings the combination of Bill’s official testimony and Yuri’s display of political art helped raise awareness for the commission’s efforts and move the national conversation toward legal and financial reparations for internment.
Yuri was also influential in other activist movements during and after the 1960s. After the couple and their six children moved to Harlem, Yuri became active in the African American community and civil rights, and in October 1963, after she had been arrested as part of a protest, met and befriended Malcolm X. She introduced Malcolm to visiting Japanese Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors), became active in his Organization of Afro-American Unity, and was present at his February 1965 assassination in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom; a famous Life magazine photograph of the tragedy shows Yuri cradling Malcolm’s body in her arms after the shooting. She would remain active in the civil rights and African American rights movements long after this tragedy and would expand her efforts to other communities as well, most famously in her participation in a 1977 takeover of the Statue of Liberty by Puerto Rican protesters advocating for Puerto Rican independence and the release of political prisoners.
That latter action might seem to locate Kochiyama in opposition to the United States. Yet while she criticized, and at times overtly opposed, the U.S. government and its policies, such dissent is both an embodiment of critical patriotism and a natural legacy of her World War II experiences with official white supremacist attitudes and policies. Kochiyama’s dissent from the status quo also reflects her lifelong determination, expressed most clearly in her memoir Passing It On (2004), to leave a better nation and world for future generations. As she put it in an interview about that book, “When we think of our children and our children’s children, we try to make this a more harmonious world, and the only way that could be is, there’s got to be justice, there’s got to be equality, there’s got to be self-determination and human rights.”
In that belief, as in so many aspects of her inspiring life, Yuri Kochiyama exemplified an inclusive alternative to the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and exclusionary visions of American identity.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now