Yuri Kochiyama, ’60s civil rights activist and friend of Malcom X’s, dies at 93

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of Malcolm X in the headline and article summary. The article has been corrected.

June 5

A Life magazine photograph from 1965 shows Malcolm X lying on the stage of a New York City ballroom moments after assassins had shot him down. One of the first people who rushed to his side was a petite Asian woman in glasses who is seen cradling his head in her hands.

A hotbed of black liberation was an unlikely place to find a middle-aged Japanese American mother of six who had grown up teaching Sunday school in a mostly white section of San Pedro, Calif.

But history’s twists had turned Yuri Kochiyama onto an unexpected path.

Mrs. Kochiyama, who straddled black revolutionary politics and Asian American empowerment movements during four decades of activism that was just beginning when she met Malcolm X, died June 1 at 93 in Berkeley, Calif., her family said. No cause of death was announced.

The daughter of Japanese immigrants, Mrs. Kochiyama experienced the hardships of a World War II internment camp in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack.


Yuri Kochiyama, civil rights activist, died June 1 at 93 in Berkeley, Calif., her family said (Courtesy of the Kochiyama Family)

She married a Japanese American GI she had met during the war and in 1960 moved with him to Harlem, where she raised a large family and joined her poor black and Puerto Rican neighbors to fight for better schools and safer streets.

Radicalized by her friendship with Malcolm X, the fiery Nation of Islam leader, Mrs. Kochiyama plunged into campaigns for Puerto Rican independence, nuclear disarmament and reparations for Japanese American internees.

“I didn’t wake up and decide to become an activist,” she told the Dallas Morning News in 2004. “But you couldn’t help notice the inequities, the injustices. It was all around you.”

Known as “Sister Yuri” in a wide circle of African American activists that included the firebrand poet Amiri Baraka and ’60s radical Angela Davis, Mrs. Kochiyama also became an advocate for prisoners, organizing supporters across racial lines to press for reconsideration of charges many considered politically motivated.

She was born Mary Yuriko Nakahara in San Pedro on May 19, 1921. Her father owned a fish and marine supply business and was prominent in the Japanese American community.

Mrs. Kochiyama was a model of assimilation. She wrote a sports column for the San Pedro News-Pilot and was a Sunday school teacher at the local Presbyterian church.

She went on to study journalism at Compton Community College.

Being of Japanese descent never seemed to be a problem — until Dec. 7, 1941.

That day, she was at home with her father when FBI agents knocked on their door and arrested him.

He was among hundreds of people of Japanese descent, most of them American citizens, who were wrongly accused of espionage and sent to prison after the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Although he had just undergone ulcer surgery, he was denied medical care in prison and died six weeks later.

Mrs. Kochiyama and the rest of the family were sent to an internment camp in Jerome, Ark., where she organized other young women to write letters to the thousands of Japanese American GIs who were serving their country during the war.

She was released in 1944 to help run a USO center for the soldiers in Hattiesburg, Miss. That is where she met Bill Kochiyama, a member of the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team made up almost entirely of Japanese American soldiers. They married in 1946 and moved to New York.

Mrs. Kochiyama’s apartment in Harlem became Grand Central for the left. In 1963 she was among several hundred people detained at a protest over discriminatory hiring practices. While she was awaiting arraignment at a Brooklyn courthouse, Malcolm X arrived to lend support to the arrestees, most of whom were African American.

When the crowd surged toward him, Mrs. Kochiyama hung back.

“I felt so bad that I wasn’t black, that this should be just a black thing,” she recalled on the news show “Democracy Now” several years ago. “But the more I see them all so happily shaking his hand and Malcolm so happy, I said, gosh darn it, I’m going to try and meet him somehow.”

At an opportune moment she called out, “Can I shake your hand?” After a brief exchange, he stuck out his hand and a friendship was born.

She did not see eye-to-eye with him at first: She believed in racial integration, not separatism. But she began to study his ideas and joined his Organization of Afro-American Unity; she also became a Muslim for a short time. In 1964 the charismatic leader came to her apartment to meet survivors of the atomic bomb blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On Feb. 21, 1965, she went to hear him speak at the Audubon Ballroom, acutely aware of the threats against his life. When the shots rang out, she crawled toward him and “picked up his head and just put it on my lap. I said, ‘Please, Malcolm . . . stay alive,’ ” but he was dying.

Over the next decades, she campaigned against the Vietnam War and in 1977 was arrested with Puerto Rican nationalists at the Statue of Liberty. Her prison work intensified.

“She was known for writing along the bottom of her Christmas cards ‘Save Mumia! Save Mumia!’ ” said Johanna Fernandez, a Baruch College professor involved in the campaign to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is serving a life sentence for killing a Philadelphia police officer more than 30 years ago although he claimed innocence.

Mrs. Kochiyama moved to Oakland, Calif., in 1999 after a stroke to be closer to her family. Survivors include four children; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 1993. Two of her children died following car accidents.

— Los Angeles Times

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