Asian American Figures
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Wong Kim Ark
On March 28, 1898, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, holding that children born in the United States, even to parents not eligible to become citizens, were nonetheless citizens themselves under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants who were barred from ever becoming U.S. citizens under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Wong Kim Ark was denied re-entry to the United States after a trip to China, on the grounds that the son of a Chinese national could never be a U.S. citizen. Wong sued the federal government, resulting in the Supreme Court’s seminal decision that the government could not deny citizenship to anyone born in the United States.
Grace Lee Boggs
A prominent activist her entire adult life, Grace Lee Boggs (June 27, 1915 – October 5, 2015) was born in Rhode Island, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She studied at Barnard College and Bryn Mawr, receiving her Ph.D. in 1940. Her studies in philosophy and the writings of Marx, Hegel, and Margaret Mead led not to a life in academia, but rather to a lifetime of social activism.
Lee’s activism began in Chicago, where she joined the movement for tenants’ rights, and then the Workers Party, a splinter group of the Socialist Workers Party. In these associations, as well as in her involvement with the 1941 March on Washington, Lee focused on marginalized groups such as women and people of color. In 1953, Lee married Black auto worker and activist James (Jimmy) Boggs and moved to Detroit, where the two continued their activism. Jimmy died in 1993.
Boggs has rejected the stereotypical radical idea that capitalist society is just something to be done away with, believing more that “you cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.”
She believed that it is by working together in small groups that positive social change can happen, not in large revolutions where one group of power simply changes position with another. With this philosophy, she and her husband founded Detroit Summer in 1992. In a YES! Magazine interview, Boggs explains, “We wanted to engage young people in community-building activities: planting community gardens, recycling waste, organizing neighborhood arts and health festivals, rehabbing houses, painting public murals. Encouraging them to exercise their Soul Power would get their cognitive juices flowing. Learning would come from practice, which has always been the best way to learn.”
Boggs continued to write books and be an activist. She died in 2015 at the age of 100. [From Americans Who Tell the Truth.]
In 1982, May Chen led the New York Chinatown strike of 1982, one of the largest Asian American worker strikes with about 20,000 garment factory workers marching the streets of Lower Manhattan demanding work contracts.
Chen, then affiliated with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, was one of the strike organizers.
“The Chinatown community then had more and more small garment factories,” she recalled. “And the Chinese employers thought they could play on ethnic loyalties to get the workers to turn away from the union. They were very, very badly mistaken.”
Most of the protests included demands for higher wages, improved working conditions, and for management to observe the Confucian principles of fairness and respect. By many accounts, the workers won. The strike caused the employers to hold back on wage cuts and withdraw their demand that workers give up their holidays and some benefits. It paved the way for better working conditions such as hiring bilingual staff to interpret for workers and management, initiation of English-language classes, and van services for workers.
“I talk for those of our men who, in factory and field, in all sections of American industry, work side by side with their fellow American workers to strengthen the industrial framework of this country.”
—Ibrahim Chowdry, in a letter given for testimony during the U.S. Congressional Committee on Immigration and Naturalization hearings in 1945
Ibrahim Chowdry was a community organizer in New York, who worked across racial and religious lines to build coalitions between Bangladeshi immigrants and Puerto Rican and Black communities. Chowdry escaped a British crack down over his political activities in East Bengal and settled in New York City in the 1920s, where he and his fellow East Bengalis initiated numerous community organizations which included pooling their money to help open restaurants and small businesses, starting organizations to empower their communities, and offering social support for new immigrants who moved in.
In the book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Chowdry’s son and daughter, Noor and Laila, recall his impact as a community leader by helping “ex-seamen with immigration problems,” “went from one New York-area hospital to the next, meeting with staff and asking them to call him whenever anyone was admitted with the surnames Meah, Ullah, Uddin, or Ali,” and “Bengali countrymen would call him on the phone and he would run off. If someone was sick or if someone died, he would make their funeral arrangements.”
Yuri Kochiyama (May 19, 1921 – June 1, 2014) was a tireless political activist who dedicated her life to contributing to social change through her participation in social justice and human rights movements.
She was born and raised in San Pedro, California. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, her father, just out of surgery, was arrested and detained in a hospital. “He was the only Japanese in that hospital,” Kochiyama recalls, “so they hung a sheet around him that said, ‘Prisoner of War.'” He died shortly thereafter. In 1943, under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, Kochiyama and her family were sent to a concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas, for two years. This experience and her father’s death made Kochiyama highly aware of governmental abuses and would forever bond her to those engaged in political struggles. After being released, she moved to New York and married Bill Kochiyama, veteran of the all-Japanese American 442nd combat unit of the U.S. Army.
Kochiyama’s activism started in Harlem in the early 1960s, where she participated in the Asian American, Black, and Third World movements for civil and human rights, ethnic studies, and against the war in Vietnam. She was a fixture in support movements involving organizations such as the Young Lords and the Harlem Community for Self Defense. As founder of Asian Americans for Action, she also sought to build a more political Asian American movement that would link itself to the struggle for Black liberation. “Racism has placed all ethnic peoples in similar positions of oppression poverty and marginalization.” In 1963, she met Malcolm X. Their friendship and political alliance changed her life and outlook. She joined his group, the Organization for Afro-American Unity, to work for racial justice and human rights. Yuri was present on the day he was tragically shot and killed in 1965. In the Life magazine article “Death of Malcolm X,” she can be seen crouched in the background, cradling Malcolm X’s head.
In the 1980s, Kochiyama worked in the redress and reparations movement for Japanese-Americans along with her husband Bill. Support for political prisoners—African American, Puerto Rican, Native American, Asian American, and progressive whites—has been a consistent thread in her work.
GRACE LEE BOGS
June 27, 1915- October 5, 2015
May 19, 1921- June 1, 2014