Yuri Kochiyama. file photo
Yuri Kochiyama. file photo

Yuri Kochiyama, a noted human rights activist seen in the iconic photo as she held the lifeless body of Malcolm X in 1965, died in Berkeley, Calif. on June 1, 2014. She was 93.

“Yuri was a legendary champion of civil rights who dedicated her life to the pursuit of social justice across communities of color,” an Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus statement said. “(She) dedicated herself to … so many causes ranging from advocacy for political prisoners who were victims of human rights violations, to anti-apartheid organizing and international liberation movements including Puerto Rican independence. Her commitment to social justice has inspired an entire generation of activists.”

Her passing was marked by civic leaders and elected officials alike.

“Today we celebrate the life, and mourn the loss, of an incredible civil rights activist and community leader,” Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) said in a statement. “Yuri Kochiyama … used her experiences from both the war and living in the housing projects in New York City as fuel for her activism and community organizing. During a time of incredible racial tension, her work was inclusive of all communities and connected people across many different walks of life.”

“One of our community’s greatest heroines and freedom fighters … has passed,” San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said on his Facebook page. “You taught us to stand up for what we believe and not be afraid.”

She was born Mary Yuri Nakahara on May 19, 1921 in San Pedro, Calif., one of three children of Issei parents Seiichi and Tsuyako Nakahara.

On the day of the Pearl Harbor bombing, the FBI abducted her father, a local fisherman. He was one of 1,300 Nikkei community leaders detained within the first 48 hours of the bombing. His six-week detention aggravated his health issues and he died on Jan. 21, 1942, the day after his release.

Kochiyama and her family were incarcerated at Santa Anita Assembly Center and later the Jerome, Ark. concentration camp. She organized her Sunday school teens, the Crusaders, to write to Nisei soldiers, including her twin brother, Peter. The Crusaders — at the Poston, Heart Mountain, Topaz (Central Utah), Rohwer and Jerome camps — sent holiday greetings and letters to some 3,000 Nisei soldiers.

She would meet her future husband, Pvt. Bill Kochiyama, in Jerome. The couple married in early 1946 in New York City and raised six children — Billy, Audee, Aichi, Eddie, Jimmy and Tommy.

When she heard Malcolm X speak she had begun to look at the issue of equality in a whole new way. By the time of his death in 1965, Kochiyama had become one of Malcolm X’s closest friends.

Kochiyama also formed the “David Wong Support Committee” to free a man who claimed he was framed for a prison murder. Wong’s case was overturned unanimously 14 years after Kochiyama took up his fight.

With her husband Bill, she coordinated demonstrations with Iranian student organizations to raise awareness. They also helped organize New York’s first “Day of Remembrance” for the Japanese American incarceration in 1981, and she would be involved in Japanese American redress.

The Kochiyama family has set up a Facebook page to capture images and memories of her and to inform people about upcoming celebrations of her life. The page can be found at: www.facebook.com/RememberingYuriKochiyamaa.

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