Today would have marked the 87th physical born day of the great Malcolm X, who we lost on the eve of Feb 21, 1965. Personally, Malcolm, along with Yuri Kochiyama (who we'll get to later), Richard Aoki (who played an integral role in the genesis of the Black Panthers) and Marcus Garvey are all heroes and role models in my eyes, and will always remain so. Legends who pushed for justice and equality of all minorities and oppressed people. Now you may be asking who Yuri Kochiyama is. After the jump, you can read a small editorial I wrote on Yuri and who she was, if you're at all interested.
Blue Scholars - Yuri Kochiyama
Yuri Kochiyama with Fred Hampton Jr. at the Black New World in West Oakland in 2008
The story of Yuri is quite amazing, and equally inspiring. Mary Yuriko Nakahara was born a Nisei Japanese American in San Pedro, CA on May 19th, 1921 (fun fact: she shares the same birth date as the late, great Malcolm X). Fast forward two decades, Dec. 7th, 1941, the fateful day when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Just two hours after the bombing, Yuri’s father was immediately taken into custody for unwarranted “crimes” and labeled as a “spy” (a/k/a simply being Japanese and residing in the U.S.). Yuri’s father, who was gravely sick, was eventually taken to a local hospital, where they proceeded to surround his bed with white sheets and a sign that read Prisoner of War. Barely a month after he was illegally taken into custody, and released from the hospital, Yuri’s father, Seiichi Nakahara passed away (January 22, 1942). Eventually, Yuri and the rest of her family were relocated to an internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas, where more than 120,000 other Japanese-Americans were imprisoned for nearly two years.
Another twenty years into the story of Yuri, we find her and her husband, Bill Kochiyama in Harlem, New York during the 1960s. Yuri at the time was a member of the Harlem Parents Committee, while sharing the same neighborhood that Malcolm walked and lived. Sometime in 1963, Yuri recalls seeing a young group of brothers surrounding Malcolm, and curious, she approached. Inspired by his optimistic aura, confidence and smile, she attempted to meet Malcolm and shake his hand. Yuri yelled out “Malcolm, may I shake your hand?!” Malcolm responded, “What for?” to which a bewildered Yuri responded “Because of what you’re doing for your people.” Malcolm’s response, “What am I doing for my people?” Yuri, scrambling to find the right words in her head, replied with “Giving them direction” After this response, Malcolm’s entire demeanor changed, stepped down from the crowd and extended his hand to Yuri.
At the time of this once-in-a-lifetime encounter with the brother Malcolm, Yuri had just been released from prison for protesting for the independence rights for Puerto Ricans, even leading a group, The Young Lords and took over the Statue of Liberty. A group of Japanese Atomic bomb survivors / victims were making a tour around the World to speak out against Nuclear Proliferation and eventually made contact with Yuri who wanted to meet Malcolm. Although they had their doubts of Malcolm visiting the household (Harlem projects) of Yuri’s family, he eventually showed up one evening. From this second meet-and-greet, Yuri became good friends with Malcolm, to the extent that he’d continuously write her letters while he was traveling around Africa (Asia).
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm, despite rumors of war and assassination, spoke at a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. With 400 people in attendance, Malcolm’s personal security were very wary of the potential danger that permeated the atmosphere that day. As you may recall from Spike Lee’s film, a diversion of sorts was created when two men yelled “N!gger, get your hand out of my pocket!” Malcolm, in his cool, calm and collected demeanor tried to mollify the men, which is when Malcolm was shot in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun, and peppered with bullets from a handgun by two other men. Yuri, who sat in the 10th row from the podium, immediately ran up to the stage. “Malcolm had fallen straight back, and he was on his back. And so I just went there and picked up his head and just put it on my lap. People ask, ‘What did he say?’ He didn’t say anything. He was just having a difficult time breathing. I said, ‘Please, Malcolm, please, Malcolm, stay alive.’ But he was hit so many times.” – via Democracy Now.
Yuri was in attendance when Malcolm X was slain, rushed up the podium and gently cradled Malcolm’s head in her arms as he took his last few breaths. Yuri is pictured in the bottom right, back facing the camera.
The assassination of Malcolm X, better known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, only inspired Yuri to further fight for “social justice, human rights, racial equality and prisoner rights. She is a staunch supporter of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has lived on death row in Pennsylvania for a quarter of a century.” Although, regarding the fight for civil and human rights, we must consider human rights as first priority. As Malcolm once wrote, “How is the black man going to get “civil rights” before first he wins his human rights? If the American black man will start thinking about his human rights, and then start thinking of himself as part of one of the world’s great peoples, he will see he has a case [for the United Nations].”
If you wish to find out more information on this legendary Queen, you can pick up two of her books: Passing It On a memoir penned by Yuri herself, and Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama written by Diane Carol Fujino.