First Female President of Japanese American Civil Rights Group Dies From COVID-19 at 91

Lillian Kimura, the first female national president of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), passed away due to COVID-19.

The pioneering leader, who was incarcerated as a child at the Manzanar concentration camp, died at 91 on April 23 in New Jersey, according to her niece Margaret Golden and AsAm News.
The JACL is a national organization committed to securing and maintaining the civil rights of Japanese Americans and “all others who are victimized by injustice and bigotry.”

Additionally, the group aims to promote cultural, educational and social values, as well as to preserve the heritage and legacy of the Japanese American community.

During World War II, Kimura and her family were incarcerated at the Manzanar War Relocation Camp in California. She was only 13.
Afterward, the family moved to Chicago. Kimura attended the University of Illinois, where she earned a degree in social work.
It was in Chicago where her work with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA USA) started. She eventually became its associate executive director.

In 1992, she made history after being elected as the first female national president of JACL. She held the position until 1994.

In her service of two years, Kimura became a trailblazer. The organization welcomed resolutions condemning sexual harassment, supporting family leave, and supporting a woman’s right to choose abortion.

Under her leadership, JACL also increasingly supported gay rights, including the right to serve in the military. This resulted in a resolution supporting gay marriage in 1994.
“Lillian was a force of nature. She became JACL National President at a time when few women had broken through the glass ceiling to lead national civil rights organizations,” said Karen Narasaki, former president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC).

“Under her leadership, JACL became the first major national civil rights group of color to endorse marriage equality, long before the issue got to the Supreme Court. The nation has lost another woman warrior for equality.”

David Lin, who served as JACL’s national president from 2012-2016, described Kimura as an “extremely kind and generous person” from the day they met in 2007.
“I am deeply saddened upon hearing the news about Lillian’s passing,” Lin said. “She encouraged me to serve and she mentored and coached me when I was on the National Board. And above all, she inspired me to dedicate my service to the JACL just as she had. For that, I owe her a debt of gratitude. I will always cherish my association with Lillian and she will be missed dearly.”

Kimura’s passing comes just after the deaths of Helen Kawagoe, the second and only other woman elected as national president of JACL, and Irene Hirano Inouye, founding president and chief executive officer for the Japanese American National Museum and the U.S.-Japan Council.

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