The world has lost two inspirational women in quick succession after Maya Angelou died last week. The Japanese-American civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama died yesterday in her California home. She was 93 years old. According to her family, Kochiyama passed away peacefully in her sleep. The legendary activist championed equal rights for ethnic minorities all her life, and famously cradled a dying Malcolm X after he was assassinated in New York.
Kochiyama was born in 1921 in San Pedro, Los Angeles. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941, tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans were forcibly sent to internment camps, including a 20-year-old Kochiyama and her family. When she was released, Kochiyama moved to New York and became interested in the civil rights movement after living in black and Latino housing projects.
In 1963, a chance meeting at a black rights protest in Brooklyn led to Kochiyama striking up a friendship with Malcolm X. Their relationship, coupled with the increasing momentum of the civil rights movement, radicalized Kochiyama and deepened her interest in black nationalism.
Their friendship lasted until 1965, when Malcolm X was gunned down at a speaking event at the Audobon Ballroom in New York. Kochiyama rushed forward to get to Malcolm, and she cradled his body as he died. The image of Kochiyama and Malcolm X in the Audobon Ballroom was captured by a LIFE magazine photographer, with Kochiyama's haunted expression emblematic of a death that sent shockwaves through America. Their relationship was the subject of a play written by Tim Toyama called Yuri and Malcolm X, and Kochiyama appeared as herself in the 1981 TV film Death Of A Prophet – The Last Days Of Malcolm X.
Kochiyama was an inspirational figure in American civil rights movement, someone renowned for her lifelong dedication to the cause. She put enormous pressure on Ronald Reagan to sign the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, which as well as repairing damages done by other civil injustices, also awarded $20,000 to each survivor of the Japanese American internment. In 2005, Kochiyama was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
It's no surprise that her work has inspired a generation of new activists and musicians, including Blue Scholars. In 2011, the Seattle hip-hop duo dedicated their track "Yuri Kochiyama" to her, with the line "When I grow up I wanna be just like Yuri Kochiyama / Imma serve the people proper".
Follow Thomas Gorton on Twitter here @angstromhoot