Yuri Kochiyama, Civil Rights Activist, Dies in Berkeley at Age 93

Monday, Jun 2, 2014  |  Updated 9:50 AM PDT
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Yuri Kochiyama, Civil Rights Activist, Dies in Berkeley at Age 93

AP

Yuri Kochiyama, of Oakland, CA., looks at a memorial erected for the inhabitants of a Japanese-American World War II interment camp in Rohwer, Ark., Sunday, Sept. 26, 2004. The memorials and a cemetery is all that is left of the Rohwer Relocation Center that once housed thousands of Japanese-American detainees during the war. Hundreds of former interment detainees and their family members visited the camps Sunday during the "Life Interrupted" national conference. (AP Photo/Mike Wintroath)

Japanese-American civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama - whose picture looking at Malcom X after he died was captured in a Life Magazine photo - has died of natural causes in Berkeley, Calif., at the age of 93, a family member told National Public Radio.

Kochiyama first met Malcolm X in 1963 and she began focusing her work on black nationalism. Minutes after gunmen fired at Malcolm X in 1965 during his last speech in New York City, she rushed towards him and cradled his head on her lap. A black-and-white photo in Life magazine shows Kochiyama peering worriedly through horn-rimmed glasses at Malcolm X's bullet-riddled body.

Yuri Kochiyama was born Mary Yuriko Nakahara in 1921 and raised in San Pedro, California, in a small working-class neighborhood, according to BlackPast.org. 

When Pearl Harbor was bombed, her family's fate took a turn for the worse.  Her father, a first-generation Japanese immigrant, was arrested by the FBI. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Executive Order 9066 ordering the removal of persons of Japanese descent from “strategic areas,” Yuri and her family were sent to an internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas. 

It was that event, where she began seeing the parallels between the treatment of African Americans in Jim Crow South and the incarceration of Japanese Americans in remote internment camps during World War II, BlastPast.org states on its website. She then decided to devote her life to struggles against racial injustice. 

The couple married after World War II and moved to start their family in New York City. Living in housing projects among black and Puerto Rican neighbors inspired her interest in the civil rights movement. Kochiyama held weekly open houses for activists in the family's apartment, where she taped newspaper clippings to the walls and kept piles of leaflets on the kitchen table. "Our house felt like it was the movement 24/7," said her eldest daughter Audee Kochiyama-Holman, according to NPR.

In the 1980s, she and her husband pushed for reparations and a formal goverment apology for Japanese-American internees through the Civil Liberties Act, which President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1988. Her continued dedication to social causes inspired younger generations of activists, especially within the Asian-American community.

"She was not your typical Japanese-American person, especially a nisei," or a second-generation Japanese-American, second cousin Tim Toyama told NPR. "She was definitely ahead of her time, and we caught up with her."

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