Friday, June 6, 2014

Yuri Kochiyama, 1921-2014: Iconic Human Rights Activist, Teacher, Community Organizer, Friend and Colleague of Malcolm X

Yuri Kochiyama, Rights Activist Who Befriended Malcolm X, Dies at 93
JUNE 4, 2014
New York Times
 Yuri Kochiyama, in 1999, hosted activists in Harlem. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Yuri Kochiyama, a civil rights activist who formed an unlikely friendship with Malcolm X when he was still promoting black nationalism and later cradled his head in her hands as he lay dying from gunshot wounds in 1965, died on Sunday in Berkeley, Calif. She was 93.

Her granddaughter Akemi Kochiyama confirmed the death.

Mrs. Kochiyama, the child of Japanese immigrants who settled in Southern California, knew discrimination well by the time she was a young woman. During World War II she spent two years in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans in Arkansas, a searing experience that also exposed her to the racism of the Jim Crow South.

A few years after the war, she married William Kochiyama, whom she had met at the camp, and the couple moved to New York in 1948. They spent 12 years in public housing in Manhattan, in the Amsterdam Houses on the Upper West Side, where most of their neighbors were black and Puerto Rican, before moving to Harlem.

The couple had become active in the civil rights movement when Mrs. Kochiyama met Malcolm X for the first time at a Brooklyn courthouse in October 1963. He was surrounded by supporters, mostly young black men, when she approached him. She told him she wanted to shake his hand, to congratulate him, she recalled in an interview with The New York Times in 1996.

“I admire what you’re doing,” she told him, “but I disagree with some of your thoughts.”

He asked which ones.

“Your harsh stand on integration,” she said.

He agreed to meet with her later, and by 1964 Mrs. Kochiyama and her husband had befriended him. Early that year Malcolm X began moving away from the militant Nation of Islam, to which he belonged, toward beliefs that were accepting of many kinds of people. He sent the Kochiyamas postcards from his travels to Africa and elsewhere.

One, mailed from Kuwait on Sept. 27, 1964, read: “Still trying to travel and broaden my scope since I’ve learned what a mess can be made by narrow-minded people. Bro. Malcolm X.”

The following February, Mrs. Kochiyama was in the audience at the Audubon Ballroom in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan waiting to hear Malcolm X address a new group he had founded, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, when there was a burst of gunfire. She ran toward the stage.

“I just went straight to Malcolm, and I put his head on my lap,” she recalled. “He just lay there. He had difficulty breathing, and he didn’t utter a word.”

A powerful photograph of her holding him accompanied an article about the assassination in the March 5, 1965, issue of Life magazine.

Mrs. Kochiyama was born Mary Yuriko Nakahara on May 19, 1921, in San Pedro, Calif. An outgoing student in high school, she played sports and wrote for the school newspaper. She said in interviews that she was mostly unaware of political issues until her father, Seiichi, was taken into custody by the F.B.I. shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Although ill, Mr. Nakahara, a successful fish merchant, was held and interrogated for several weeks before being released on Jan. 20, 1942. He died the next day. By the spring, the rest of the family was among the 120,000 Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps across the country.

In the 1980s, the Kochiyamas sought government reparations for Japanese-Americans who had been interned. In 1988, Congress approved a plan to pay $20,000 to each of the estimated 60,000 surviving internees.

Besides her granddaughter Akemi, her survivors include a daughter, Audee Kochiyama-Holman; three sons, Eddie, Jimmy and Tommy; eight other grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Another son, Billy, died in the 1970s, and a daughter, Aichi, died in 1989.

Her husband died in 1993. He had been interned in Arkansas before he joined the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which became one of the most decorated units in American military history.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the sofa in the Kochiyamas’ apartment was regularly occupied by activists in need of a place to sleep. Years later, Mrs. Kochiyama helped organize campaigns to free activists and others whom she believed had been wrongly imprisoned, including Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther and radio journalist sentenced to death in the killing of a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. In 2012, his sentence was reduced to life without parole.

Mrs. Kochiyama, who never graduated from college, read constantly and widely. On Tuesday, her granddaughter Akemi opened for the first time a journal of favorite quotations that Mrs. Kochiyama had collected and given to her several years ago.

“There were so many different writers and thinkers,” said Akemi Kochiyama, who is pursuing a doctorate in cultural anthropology. “It’s Emerson, it’s Keats and Yeats and José Marti. It’s political thinkers. It’s Marcus Garvey. It’s everything.”

Mrs. Kochiyama was an inspiration herself. For its 2011 album “Cinemetropolis,” the Seattle hip-hop group Blue Scholars composed a song about her. The refrain: “When I grow up I want to be just like Yuri Kochiyama.”

Yuri Kochiyama
(b. May 19, 1921--d. June 1, 2014)

Yuri Kochiyama, ’60s civil rights activist and friend of Malcolm X’s, dies at 93
By Elaine Woo
Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times
5, 2014

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.

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

Yuri Kochiyama dies: activist got reparations for interned Japanese
by Meredith May
June 3, 2014
San Francisco Chronicle

Yuri Kochiyama, at her Oakland apartment in 2005, was "one of the most prominent Asian American activists to emerge from the 1960s." Photo: Penni Gladstone, SFC

Yuri Kochiyama, whose activism led to reparations for Japanese interned during World War II, and who cradled Malcolm X's head as he lay dying from an assassin's bullets, died in her sleep Sunday in her Berkeley home. She was 93.

Her path to social work had just begun in 1965 when Mrs. Kochiyama, seated in the front row of the Harlem Audubon Ballroom, rushed the stage and held the 39-year-old civil rights leader's head in her lap as he died of multiple gunshot wounds.

The moment was immortalized in a Life magazine photo showing Mrs. Kochiyama worried and peering at Malcolm X through her trademark cat-eye glasses. It was a crystallizing experience for the budding activist, whose family had been interned during World War II.

The parallels she saw between the treatment of African Americans in the Jim Crow South and Japanese Americans during World War II inspired her to become one of the few Asian Americans who, early on, forged deep bonds with blacks in some of their most important struggles for equality.

She was "one of the most prominent Asian American activists to emerge from the 1960s," according to Diane Fujino, an associate professor of Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara who wrote a book about her, "Yuri Kochiyama, Heartbeat of Struggle."

"She operated on two levels simultaneously," Fujino said. "She cared very much for the person in front of her, and she also worked to fight against the structural racism and imperialism in society."

A mother of six who took to revolutionary causes, Mrs. Kochiyama brought her children to protests and was arrested for occupying the Statue of Liberty to draw attention to the struggle for Puerto Rican independence.

In 2005, Mrs. Kochiyama was among those nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by a group of international organizations dedicated to promoting female peace workers, "1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize."

She stood up for revolutionary causes for more than half a century, becoming a mentor to generations of students and a pen pal to hundreds of imprisoned activists. The student cultural center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is named after her.

Mrs. Kochiyama also wrote a memoir, "Passing It On," in which she describes a childhood in San Pedro, a small coastal community in Los Angeles. Her parents were well-educated immigrants. Her father owned a successful fish store, and she and two brothers were raised in a custom-built house in the white section of town.

Mary Yuriko Nakahara, as she was then known, was popular - she and twin brother Peter were school class officers. Full of energy, she loved teaching Sunday school, organized drives for the poor and even started writing about sports for the San Pedro News-Pilot.

This life was shattered after Pearl Harbor, when her father, a well-known community leader, was arrested and imprisoned briefly. He had just undergone ulcer surgery before his arrest, and died shortly after being released.

The family, along with 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of them American citizens like the Nakahara children, were then forced into internment camps during the war.

The trauma of internment and her father's death would be themes in Mrs. Kochiyama's later activism.

At camp, she met and fell in love with a handsome nisei from New York, Bill Kochiyama, who served with the legendary, all-nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

After marrying and settling in New York City, the Kochiyamas began raising a family. But soon, their little apartment became a meeting point for visiting former nisei GIs and San Pedro friends.

When her children were old enough, they protested, alongside their mother, against the Vietnam War. Mrs. Kochiyama lost two children in early deaths, one by suicide and the other in a car accident.

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.

Her husband died in 1993.

She is survived by four children, Eddie Kochiyama and Audee Kochiyama-Holman, both of the Bay Area; and Jimmy and Tommy Kochiyama, both of Los Angeles.

Meredith May is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @meredithmaysf