On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X (1925-1965) was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York. The image of him laying mortally wounded while surrounded by his close aides shows the savagery employed by his killers. His death was violent and unmerciful, taking place in front of his wife Betty and their six daughters. From the initial volley of shots, it was clear to most that Malcolm’s wounds were fatal. First aid was administered to no avail. Among those who rushed to his side was a friend and dedicated civil rights activist named Yuri Kochiyama (1921-2014). She is rarely mentioned in stories about the legendary Muslim leader but her life was one of dedication to civil rights for all human beings.
You may be wondering why you have not heard of Kochiyama before. I asked myself the same question. I never learned anything about her in school and her name does not appear in any history textbooks. But by chance, I discovered her as I studied the photo of Malcolm’s final moments. Curiosity set in and I kept asking myself who was the Asian woman in the middle of Malcolm’s followers? After learning her name, I found this excellent biography by author Diane C. Fujino, a professor in the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara.
Kochiyama’s story begins in San Pedro, California and her youth is centered around the detainment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. The experience would never leave her or millions of Japanese who struggled to be accepted in the United States as suspicions about their loyalty to Japan mounted. Her internment in Jerome, Arkansas may have possibly been the spark that resulted in a life-long pursuit of justice and equality. As she matures to adulthood, she meets her husband Bill and the couple would produce six children. The Kochiyama family settled in New York City and became a fixture in the struggle for civil rights, operating out of their apartment in Manhattan. Fujino met personally with Kochiyama, her family and those who knew her, conducting interviews and recording the memories about her life. The end result is an incredible biography of an incredible woman who’s life story is as American as the reader could possibly ask for.
Yuri’s fateful encounter with Malcolm X at the Downstate Medical Center protest took her life in a new direction and allowed her to fulfill the destiny that awaited her. Her efforts on behalf of the movement have earned her a place on the list of those who frequently went above and beyond. Her story is inspiring, encouraging and allows us to see the good in humanity. Horace Mann once said that we should “be ashamed to die until you have won a victory for humanity”. This is never more true than in the life of the late Yuri Kochiyama, who’s life should be studied in every school in the United States. The amount of work undertaken by the family is nothing short of staggering and their doors were seemingly always open. But they never complained and continued to press forward. The recollections given to Fujino are simply awe inspiring but critical in giving the most accurate picture of a forgotten icon.
On June 2, 2014, Yuri Kochiyama died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 93. Incredibly, she had outlived nearly all of the iconic figures from the Civil Rights Movement. And as her health began to slowly decline, she continued to partake in the movement giving her voice and wisdom when needed. She is now gone but her memory lives on through her work and this definitive biography by Fujino. This is the life of Yuri Kochiyama and the heartbeat of struggle.
“Life is not what you alone make it. Life is the input of everyone who touched your life and every experience that entered it. We are all part of one another” – Yuri Kochiyama