Japanese-American activist Yuri Kochiyama, who spent her lifetime fighting for the civil rights of Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian-Americans, has died in Berkeley, California, at the age of 93.
Kochiyama, born Mary Yuriko Nakahara in 1921, was forced to relocate to an internment camp with her family and thousands of other Japanese-Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Radicalized after forming a friendship with Malcolm X, whose head rested on her lap at the Audubon Ballroom as he died after being gunned down in 1965, Kochiyama went on to successfully push in the 1980s for a formal government apology to the Japanese-American internees and reparations through the Civil Liberties Act.
Through the work of activists like Kochiyama and her husband Bill, President Reagan in 1988 signed the act into law and $20,000 was awarded to each Japanese-American internment survivor.
She met her late husband Bill at the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas. Bill Kochiyama served as a soldier in the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
After WWII, they married and moved to New York City, living in the projects side-by-side with poor African-American and Puerto Rican families. The couple participated in sit-ins and invited Freedom Riders to speak at weekly open houses in their apartment.
“Our house felt like it was the movement 24/7,” her eldest daughter Kochiyama-Holman told NPR last year in a profile of her mother.
She became friends in 1963 with Malcolm X. When gunfire rang out in the ballroom in February 1965, she headed toward the injured leader while most of the audience fell to the ground and crawled away for safety.
“I just picked up his head and just put it on my lap,” Kochiyama told Democracy Now! ”I said, ‘Please, Malcolm! Please, Malcolm! Stay alive!’ ”
The moment was captured in a famous Life magazine photo.
Her continued activism included a takeover of the Statue of Liberty in the 1970s to highlight the plight of Puerto Rican independence, and a growing Asian-American protest movement in the wake of the Vietnam War demonstrations. Kochiyama mentored a generation of young activists in the art of protest.