Who Is The Japanese-American Activist Who Stood By Malcolm X?
Photo by Unseen Histories / Unsplash

Who Is The Japanese-American Activist Who Stood By Malcolm X?

Her name is Yuri Kochiyama and she was perhaps more radical than Malcolm.

In the middle of the 2001 Spike Lee film, Ali, the assassination of Malcolm X is depicted. We see Malcolm and a few members of his entourage approach the curtains from the right wing backstage of the Audubon Ballroom. As he approaches the opening, Malcolm sees a Japanese-American woman with glasses standing in the left wing. She smiles in excitement at seeing Malcolm; he acknowledges her and heads toward the podium from where he is to speak.

The woman has no speaking part and is not named in the film. We next see her after Malcolm X has been shot several times and is being attended to by supporters on the stage. We can see the back of the woman’s head and her right hand as she cradles Malcolm’s head. Had Life Magazine not captured this moment, we might not have known about Yuri Kochiyama’s involvement.

Yuri Kochiyama during Malcolm X’s assassination. Photo Credit: Time Magazine

Yuri Kochiyama has generally been erased from history on film as the woman who held a dying/dead Malcolm X at his end. Through several streaming services and YouTube, I watched several versions of Malcolm’s death, seeing Yuri Kochiyama just one time. You would never know that Yuri was a civil rights leader in her own right and a member of Malcolm’s Organization of Afro-American Unity.

The women involved in the Civil Rights Movement were the last to have their stories told. Had I not attended Fisk University, I might have known little of Diane Nash, who led student sit-ins in Nashville, helped coordinate the Freedom Riders, and was among the leaders of the SCLC, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Diane attended Fisk and my institution didn’t forget.

Ida B. Wells and Fannie Lou Hamer were essential advocates for women voting. Ida often spoke out against lynchings, and Fannie Lou worked for Black people to acquire land of their own. Rosa Parks fought against segregation, and Coretta Scott King continued her husband Martin’s work after his assassination.

During the 1963 March on Washington, only one woman was scheduled on the official program. Myrlie Evers, the widow of Medgar Evers, was slated to give a speech including a “Tribute to Negro Women.” Mrs. Evers could not get to the stage, so Daisy Bates gave her remarks instead. A few other women who were not scheduled got a few words in, like Ruby Dee and Josephine Baker. Lena Horne spoke but a single word, “Freedom.”

In a time when Black women struggled to be seen and heard (Has there ever not been such a time?). Imagine how hard it was for a Japanese-American to be acknowledged during the Civil Rights Movement. Yuri Kochiyama made herself known, though, at times, she was literally written out of history.

Mary Yuriko Nakahara was born in America, making her an American citizen for those not current on the 14th Amendment. Yuri grew up in an affluent white neighborhood, attended a Presbyterian church, and taught Sunday school. She attended San Pedro High School, was on the tennis team, and was the first female officer in the student body. She also wrote for the school newspaper. She graduated from San Pedro High School in 1939 and Compton College in 1941, where she studied English, journalism, and art.

Yuri’s life changed after December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Her sick father was arrested and held for six weeks. He was suspected of being a Japanese spy because of his close relationship with several prominent Japanese people, including the Ambassador. Her father’s condition worsened while he was imprisoned, and by the time he was released, he was unable to speak. He died the day after his release.

Shortly afterward, United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which sent approximately 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry to internment camps, including Yuri and her remaining family. She initially went to the Santa Anita Assembly Center for several months. Then, she moved again to the War Relocation Authority internment camp at Jerome, Arkansas, where they lived for the next two years. While interned, she met Bill Kochiyama, a soldier who fought for the United States. In March of 1946, the internment camps were closed. Bill and Yuri married and moved to New York, where they had six children. Both parents joined the Harlem Parents Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Yuri met Malcolm X in 1963 when both were protesting the arrest of 600 minority construction workers in Brooklyn who were protesting for jobs. In her later years, Yuri described what it was like when she met Malcolm. He became a friend of the family, visiting them at their home and writing eleven postcards while he was on his pilgrimage to Mecca.

Perhaps Yuri was excluded from many civil rights annals due to her radical nature. She had close relationships with revolutionary nationalist leaders, including Robert F. Williams, who gave Kochiyama her first copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. Kochiyama became a mentor to the radical end of the Asian American movement that grew during and after the Vietnam War protests. She joined the Revolutionary Action Movement, a black nationalist organization dedicated to urban guerrilla warfare. Yuri was among the few non-blacks invited to join the Republic of New Africa, which advocated for a separate black nation in the Southern United States. Kochiyama joined a group of Puerto Ricans who took over the Statue of Liberty to draw attention to the movement for Puerto Rican independence. FBI files described her as a “ring leader” of black nationalists and a “Red Chinese agent.”

Kochiyama became an activist for political prisoners around the world. I suspect her own father's imprisonment motivated her. In the 1980s, Yuri and Bill became advocates for reparations to the Japanese Americans interned during World War II. President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, which, among other things, awarded $20,000 to each Japanese-American internment survivor. After that success, she went right to work seeking reparations for African Americans.

Yuri’s life was not without controversy. She supported leaders like Mao Zedong and Lenin, as well as Che GuevaraPatrice LumumbaFidel Castro, and Osama bin Laden. Disliking her activism is no excuse for erasing it. Yuri was an important figure not only in Japanese American history but in American history. Fortunately, there is a mural featuring Yuri and Malcolm X at W. 125th Street and Malcolm X Blvd, and she is the subject of several biographies. She and Angela Davis were the subject of the 2010 documentary film Mountains That Take Wing. Yuri died in 2014 at the age of 93 in Berkeley, CA. America is still catching up on telling her story. It’s one that should be known.

This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of William Spivey's work on Medium. And if you dig his words, buy the man a coffee.