Yuri Kochiyama obituary: Civil rights activist who won reparations for wartime internees and who was with Malcolm X when he died


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The Independent Online

Yuri Kochiyama was a civil rights activist whose photograph famously appeared in Life magazine showing her cradling the head of Malcom X moments after he was shot.

The mother of six was living in Harlem when she forged an unlikely bond with the black activist in the 1960s, and she was sitting in the front row of the Audubon Ballroom Auditorium in New York in February 1965 when assassins burst in and gunned him down.

Among her many accomplishments over 50 years, her activism led directly to the US Senate’s agreement to pay reparations and apologise to Japanese-Americans and others who were interned during the Second World War. She was born Mary Nakahara in San Pedro, California, to a middle-class family. After Pearl Harbour she and her family were interned. While her father was in a federal prison he was denied medical care, and though he was released in January 1942 he died the next day.

Soon after, Yuri, her mother and brother were ordered to leave their home in San Pedro and sent to a converted horse stable in Santa Anita for a few months then moved to the War Relocation Authority concentration camp at Jerome, Arkansas, where they lived until war’s end. While interned, she met her future husband, Bill Kochiyama, a Nisei (second-generation Japanese) soldier fighting for the US.

Once married, they moved to Harlem and Kochiyama dedicated her life to social activism that spanned races, nationalities and causes, including opposition to the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa. She got to know Malcolm X and was a member of his Organisation of Afro-American Unity, following his departure from the Nation of Islam. She played herself in the 1981 television film Death of a Prophet – The Last Days of Malcolm X and is the subject of two plays, Yuri and Malcolm X, by the Japanese-American playwright Tim Toyama, and Bits of Paradise by Marlan Warren.

She also supported the Puerto Rican cause, and in 1977 joined a group of Puerto Ricans who took over the Statue of Liberty to draw attention to the struggle for independence. The author of a memoir, Passing It On, in 2005 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize through the 1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005 project. Some of her speeches were published in Discover Your Mission: Selected Speeches & Writings of Yuri Kochiyama (1998).

Mary (Yuri) Nakahara, human rights activist: born San Pedro, California 19 May 1921; married Bill Kochiyama (four children); died Berkeley, California 1 June 2014.