Civil rights icon’s work spanned races, nationalities and causes

By Paul Elias / The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Yuri Kochiyama was living in New York when she forged an unlikely bond with Malcolm X, and she witnessed his 1965 assassination in New York.

Kochiyama, the civil rights activist whose photograph famously appeared in Life magazine showing her cradling the head of Malcolm X moments after he was shot, died of natural causes in her Berkeley, Calif., home. Kochiyama’s family said she died in her sleep Sunday.

She was 93.

Among her many accomplishments during 50 years of work, Kochiyama’s activism led directly to the U.S. Senate’s agreement to pay reparations and apologize to Japanese-Americans and others who were interned during the World War II.

Kochiyama was born in San Pedro, Calif., to a middle-class family. She and her family were interned for two years in Arkansas during World War II. After the war, she moved to New York and married her husband, Bill, who died in 1993.

Many social causes

After her release at the war’s conclusion, Kochiyama dedicated her life to social activism that spanned races, nationalities and causes, including vocal opposition to the Vietnam War and anti-apartheid policies in South Africa and support of independence for Puerto Rico.

“Her tireless dedication to civil rights helped inspire generations of activists, including within the American Muslim community,” the California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said in a statement. “She will be fondly remembered by all those of us who continue to defend civil liberties and promote justice.”

The mother of six was living in New York’s Harlem neighborhood in the 1960s when she became acquainted with Malcolm X. She was sitting in the front row of the Audubon Ballroom Auditorium in New York when assassins burst in and gunned him down.

The California Assembly adjourned in Kochiyama’s memory Thursday.

Kochiyama is the author of a memoir, “Passing It On,” and is survived by four of her children and several grandchildren.

Meeting Malcolm X

She and her husband had become active in the civil rights movement when Yuri Kochiyama met Malcolm X for the first time at a Brooklyn courthouse in October 1963. He was surrounded by supporters, mostly young black men, when she approached him. She told him she wanted to shake his hand, to congratulate him, she recalled in an interview with The New York Times in 1996.

“I admire what you’re doing,” she told him, “but I disagree with some of your thoughts.”

He asked which ones.

“Your harsh stand on integration,” she said.

He agreed to meet with her later, and by 1964 Kochiyama and her husband had befriended him. Early that year, Malcolm X began moving away from the militant Nation of Islam, to which he belonged, toward beliefs that were accepting of many kinds of people. He sent the Kochiyamas postcards from his travels to Africa and elsewhere.

One, mailed from Kuwait on Sept. 27, 1964, read: “Still trying to travel and broaden my scope since I’ve learned what a mess can be made by narrow-minded people. Bro. Malcolm X.”

The following February, Yuri Kochiyama was in the audience at the Audubon Ballroom in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, waiting to hear Malcolm X address a new group he had founded, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, when there was a burst of gunfire. She ran toward the stage.

“I just went straight to Malcolm, and I put his head on my lap,” she recalled. “He just lay there. He had difficulty breathing, and he didn’t utter a word.

An inspiration herself

Kochiyama, who never graduated from college, read constantly and widely. On Tuesday, her granddaughter Akemi opened for the first time a journal of favorite quotations that Kochiyama had collected and given to her several years ago.

“There were so many different writers and thinkers,” Akemi Kochiyama, who is pursuing a doctorate in cultural anthropology, said. “It’s Emerson. It’s Keats and Yeats and José Marti. It’s political thinkers. It’s Marcus Garvey. It’s everything.”

Kochiyama was an inspiration herself. For its 2011 album “Cinemetropolis,” the Seattle hip-hop group Blue Scholars composed a song about her. The refrain: “When I grow up. I want to be just like Yuri Kochiyama.”

— The New York Times contributed to this report.