What we now know as Memorial Day began as “Decoration Day” in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. It was a tradition initiated by former slaves to celebrate emancipation and commemorate those who died for that cause.
These days, Memorial Day is arranged as a day “without politics”—a general patriotic celebration of all soldiers and veterans, regardless of the nature of the wars in which they participated. This is the opposite of how the day emerged, with explicitly partisan motivations, to celebrate those who fought for justice and liberation.
The concept that the population must “remember the sacrifice” of U.S. service members, without a critical reflection on the wars themselves, did not emerge by accident. It came about in the Jim Crow period as the Northern and Southern ruling classes sought to reunite the country around apolitical mourning, which required erasing the “divisive” issues of slavery and Black citizenship. These issues had been at the heart of the struggles of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
To truly honor Memorial Day means putting the politics back in. It means reviving the visions of emancipation and liberation that animated the first Decoration Days. It means celebrating those who have fought for justice, while exposing the cruel manipulation of hundreds of thousands of U.S. service members who have been sent to fight and die in wars for conquest and empire.
Kochiyama’s life in social change is inspiring, both for its longevity and for her willingness to take on the most controversial causes. She is, perhaps, most famous for her association with Malcolm X, and for the photos of her holding Malcolm X in her arms as he lay dying after being gunned down in the Audubon Ballroom on February 12, 1965. But there was much, much more to Kochiyama’s activism than her sojourn with the Organization for Afro-American Unity. She fought for Puerto Rican independence, provided support for social and political prisoners, and was instrumental in the fight for reparations for Japanese American internees.
But the importance of Kochiyama’s story doesn’t end with her personal history. For while she is no doubt a remarkable person, she was not alone among Asian Americans of her generation in her commitment to social justice. Throughout her story we are reminded of others who struggled alongside her, of the the Asian American movement of the 1960s that was inspired, in part, by Japanese American internment, exclusionary and blatantly racist immigration laws, the Vietnam War, and exploitation and discrimination of Asian immigrant workers. That movement gave birth to the phrase “Asian American” as a statement of inter-ethnic solidarity, and it stood against unjust wars and with the movements for African American civil rights, workers rights, and immigrant rights, and for multiculturalism, open enrollment in colleges and universities, and diversification of university curricula. That movement gave us Asian American studies, and Asian American studies has allowed us to create a record of our history, in our own words.