Yuri Kochiyama, a prominent Japanese-American human rights activist who was imprisoned in a World War II internment camp and who was with Malcolm X when he was assassinated, has died at age 93.
Born Mary Nakahama in San Pedro, California in 1921, Kochiyama’s father was arrested by the FBI after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He was imprisoned and denied medical care and died the day after he was released in 1942.
Then it was her turn– US authorities ordered Kochiyama, along with her mother and brother, to report for internment. They were imprisoned first in Santa Ana, then at the War Relocation Center internment camp near Jerome, Arkansas. The majority of the detainees there were US citizens.
While imprisoned for two years in Arkansas, Kochiyama learned about American racism not only against Japanese but also against blacks, who were still living under Jim Crow segregation despite America’s claim that it was fighting a war against German racism.
It wasn’t all bad news in the concentration camp, for that is where she met her future husband, Bill Kochiyama, who despite America’s terrible treatment of its Japanese citizens still enlisted to fight for the United States in the war. The couple married in 1946.
Later, Yuri and Bill moved to New York City. She met Malcolm X and was active in his Organization for Afro-American Unity, and was present when he was assassinated. She cradled his head in her arms as he lay dying after being shot by multiple assailants at Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965. A powerful photo of Kochiyama holding Malcolm X’s head appeared in Life magazine at the time.
In 1977, Kochiyama was part of a group of Puerto Rican radicals who occupied the Statue of Liberty to raise awareness of the island’s independence struggle. She was also instrumental in winning the fight for reparations for the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, with President Ronald Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act in 1988.
Kochiyama was also a champion of high-profile prisoners such as Mumia Abu Jamal and David Wong, an undocumented Chinese immigrant wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years for a murder he did not commit. Later in life, she was an outspoken opponent of Islamophobia and the little-reported roundup of Muslims after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“As one of 120,000 Japanese Americans who were uprooted, evacuated, and incarcerated during World War II and held in remote desert lands and swamplands we want to make sure today that nothing like that will ever happen again to any group,” she said in 2003.