Enduring Image

06.03.14

Remembering Yuri Kochiyama, Civil Rights Activist and Malcolm X Ally

The Japanese-American activist, who died Sunday at 93, rushed to Malcolm X’s side after he was shot—and was no means a quiet bystander in the civil rights struggle.

The photograph of Yuri Kochiyama with Malcolm X’s head in her lap, his body riddled with bullets from assassins at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights in 1965, is one of the most enduring images in African-American history. Rather than scurrying for cover like so many, she rushed to Malcolm, hoping to comfort him, hoping she could help him survive. This expression of love and compassion were characteristic of her long and productive life, which came to an end at 93 on Sunday morning in Berkeley, California.

Yuri often regaled visitors to her home with tales of how she first met Malcolm X and how captivated she was by his powerful presence. She said she wasn’t sure how he would receive a Japanese-American activist when she asked to shake his hand, but “he took my hand and beamed that big smile of his,” she told a reporter. And of course, she never forgot to mention that her birthday, May 19, was the same as Malcolm’s.

But meeting Malcolm and becoming his associate was just the most luminous of her experiences in the civil and human rights struggle, in which she and her husband, Bill Kochiyama, could be counted on to be on the ramparts. Their apartment was often like a war room, with a coterie of known and unknown activists exchanging ideas about how to advance the fight for total liberation.

During these discussions Yuri was by no means a quiet bystander. She was never reluctant to express her feelings about a particular tactic or strategy, insight she gained during her many years fighting for the causes of all oppressed people, including Latino, African, Asian, and Native American.

Born Mary Yuriko Nakahara in 1921, she was a second-generation Japanese-American, a nisei, and spent her formative years in San Pedro, California. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, she was among the tens of thousands Japanese-Americans dispatched to internment camps. It was while she was detained in Arkansas that she met her husband.

The ending of war meant the beginning of the Kochiyamas’ involvement in radical politics, and the two were inseparable as they moved from one rally to another, if they weren’t hosting a strategic meeting in their Harlem apartment.

“Yuri understood the fundamentals of our struggle for black liberation because of her internment.”

Whether on the front lines against the apartheid regime in South Africa, fair and affordable housing in the black and Latino community, or standing boldly against police brutality, the Kochiyamas were indefatigable. Yuri was among the first to lift her voice for black militants and political prisoners who were under attack by the police and COINTELPRO, many of them killed for protesting what they deemed were their rights as citizens.

She was an outspoken advocate for the release of the Central Park Five, who she believed were victims of an injustice, and she must have felt a wave of vindication when the young men’s convictions were vacated in 2002 after they had served a good part of their youth behind bars.

When Yuri moved from Harlem, it was a sad day for a number of community activists, who are even more profoundly saddened to hear of her passing. “Yuri understood the fundamentals of our struggle for black liberation because of her internment,” said Nellie Bailey, a community activist and Yuri’s close friend. “For so many reasons she will be sorely missed, and we can only hope that the next generation produces another Yuri Kochiyama.”

Even though she was miles from the issues in Harlem, she remained in contact, expressing the same unwavering commitment to peace and justice. At the same time, she was an active force in California, voicing her concern about the prevalence of gang violence and the ravages of poverty.

“She was definitely ahead of her time, and we finally caught up with her,” said her second cousin, Tim Toyama, on NPR after her death.