Remembering Yuri Kochiyama: Civil Rights Activist and Malcom X Ally

by Gwen Berumen

Yuri Kochiyama died peacefully in her sleep on May 31, 2014. A devoted advocate of civil rights, and friend of Malcom X, her death is a great loss for everyone fighting against social inequality.

Before she was friends with Malcom X and became invested in similar activist tactics, her life shaped her early, troubled vision of the world.

As a child, her father was arrested within hours of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He died in prison 43 days later after police failed to comply with his family’s requests regarding his necessary medication. A month later, “Kochiyama and her family were among the 120,000 U.S. residents of Japanese descent “evacuated” to internment camps.”

While residing in the camp, Kochiyama “learned soon enough that our strongest weapons to sustain ourselves were teamwork, a cooperative spirit, ingenuity, and concern for others.” 

She later married Bill Kochiyama, whom she met in the internment camp.

Her tumultuous childhood shaped her views and sociopolitical opinions for the rest of her life. Decades after she and her husband wed, they both championed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which requested a public apology and restitution in the form of $20,000 apiece for any surviving camp residents.

Her activism quickly took flight. She soon became immersed in the political sphere of Puerto Rican and African-American activists. In 1963, months after being arrested along with her eldest son for protesting for jobs in the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, Kochiyama met Malcom X.

She fervently disagreed with some of his stances on issues, but they eventually became great friends. She was even by his side when he was fatally shot in 1965. His activism, with its focus on Black Nationalism, mirrored her own and pushed her to fight in the greater activist movement. Melissa Hung of the East Bay Express says the following on Kochiyama’s initiatives:

When Yuri talks about the movement, she says the word with a capital “M.” The civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the Asian-American movement — all these fall under Yuri’s definition of Movement. And in Movement circles, Yuri is something of a celebrity.

Kochiyama was a survivor of brutal racism, and worked to decolonize and cross borders so that all marginalized groups could work together. She cared deeply about the fundamental rights of all human beings, and believed in finding common cause across any sociopolitical divide

Her work speaks for itself, and I hope that its legacy will continue to inspire people to fight for social justice for generations to come. 

Rest in Power, Yuri. 


Photo via 

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