Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama died June 1 in Berkeley, Calif., at age 93. The lifelong champion of civil rights catapulted to national attention under tragic circumstances. She cradled the dying Malcolm X after he was shot on Feb. 21, 1965 at Harlem-Washington Heights’ Audubon Ballroom, an image captured by Life magazine. Kochiyama first met Malcolm X in 1963 and became active in the Black Power movement and Puerto Rican nationalist causes. Kochiyama was also active in anti Vietnam war protests, prisoner rights cases, including Mumia Abu Jamal’s and David Wong’s. Kochiyama started the David Wong Support Committee. Wong, an undocumented Chinese immigrant wrongfully convicted of murder and served 18 years of a 25 to life sentence, was exonerated of the crime in 2004.
Kochiyama spoke out against anti-Muslim discrimination, racial profiling, and Islamophobic attacks after 9/11. As a young woman, Kochiyama faced the ultimate injustice of racial profiling, imprisoned in an interment camp for Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Kochiyama eventually led – and won – a campaign for reparations for the internees.
NPR.org reports: “Born in 1921 as Mary Yuriko Nakahara, Kochiyama spent the early years of her life in San Pedro, Calif., a small town south of Los Angeles. Months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, she and her family were forced to relocate to internment camps along with tens of thousands of other Japanese Americans. She met her late husband, Bill Kochiyama, who served with other Japanese American soldiers in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, at the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas, where she spent two years.
“In the 1980s, she and her husband pushed for reparations and a formal government apology for Japanese American internees through the Civil Liberties Act, which President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1988. Her continued dedication to social causes inspired younger generations of activists, especially within the Asian-American community.”
In 1996, Kochiyama joined Angela Davis in a discussion about social activism, which became a documentary film, “Mountains That Take Wing” by C.A. Griffith & H.L.T. Quan.
Teresa Albano contributed to this article.
Photo: Image from Syracuse University campus showing of “Passion For Justice”as part of the May 2011 Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (SyracuseAPAMonth).