Oakland activist keeps spirit of revolution strong
By Momo Chang, Correspondent
Article Created: 05/19/2008 01:51:31 PM PDT
OAKLAND - Yuri Kochiyama embodies the spirit of activism that one might find in an ebullient college student, but this long-time activist for social justice turns 87 today.
Kochiyama is most well known as the woman who cradled Malcolm X in her lap after he was shot Feb. 21, 1965, during a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City.
"I wanted to get up to where Malcolm was," explained Kochiyama, who was in the audience that day. "I sort of put his head in my lap, praying and hoping that he was still alive."
That moment of Kochiyama cradling the revolutionary leader was captured in a Life magazine photo.
Kochiyama, who shares the same birthday as Malcolm X and another revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh, is still an activist today.
The walls of her studio apartment in a senior housing complex near downtown Oakland are covered with political posters and signs that say "Free Mumia," "Free Palestine," and "Impeach Bush" alongside family photos, many showing interracial relationships.
Her desk and bed are covered with folders and leaflets and letters - lots of letters. She corresponds with more than 200 political prisoners in the United States, many black activists. "I can never catch up," she says.
But she was not always this radical.
Kochiyama grew up in a solidly middle class Japanese American family in San Pedro, according to Diane Fujino, associate professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who wrote Kochiyama's 2005 biography.
During World War II, Kochiyama's family was forced to move to an internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas, but not before her father, who had just undergone surgery, was imprisoned and tortured. He died soon after.
Kochiyama moved to Harlem - where she lived for about 40 years - after the war to live with her now-deceased husband, Bill. They, along with their six children, lived in a housing project.
She became involved in local civil rights organizations, such as a Harlem parents' group, and rallied for better schools, safer streets and union jobs for people of color.
It wasn't until she met Malcolm X, though, that her ideology became more radical, one of self-determination for African Americans and all people.
"He was so dynamic, and of course, his message so powerful," Kochiyama said, describing Malcolm X as her biggest political influence.
The petite Asian American woman first met Malcolm X at a courthouse in 1963, when she went up to him to shake his hand. She was in her 40s at the time.
Kochiyama, then known as Mary, was new to the Civil Rights Movement. She did end up shaking Malcolm X's hand and questioned his views on integration. Malcolm X invited her to his office for more discussion. Though she never went, she wrote many letters to him.
Kochiyama later invited Malcolm X to her apartment, which was dubbed "Grand Central Station," because of the many community members they housed.
Daughter Audee Kochiyama-Holman, 58, said that growing up, there was always someone living in their home besides their family, and that her mother would take the kids to demonstrations.
"For us kids, it was a very different kind of upbringing," she said. "It felt like 24/7 it was an activist home."
On June 6, 1964, the Kochiyama family hosted some hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The person they wanted to meet most was Malcolm X.
As their apartment filled with guests, they anxiously awaited, wondering if he would show. He did.
Malcolm X also wrote the Kochiyamas many postcards - 11 from nine countries, to be exact. Kochiyama also became a member of his organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, and became Muslim for several years.
Poet and activist Amiri Baraka remembers first hearing about Yuri.
"There was a lot of discussion about her, because of the photo of her," said Baraka, of Newark, New Jersey.
He said it was unusual at the time to find an Asian American involved in black liberation struggles, but that he viewed it positively. The two met in 1965 and still keep in touch. Kochiyama recently attended Baraka's jazz opera, The Sisyphus Syndrome, in Oakland.
Richard Aoki, a field marshal of the Black Panther Party, said that he and Kochiyama were two of a handful of Asian Americans active in African American struggles prior to the Asian American movement in the late '60s.
"When the Asian American struggle burst loose, we found ourselves sort of in the forefront because of our exposure and experience in the African American struggle," Aoki said. "It was refreshing to find someone that would agree politically," he added.
Though Kochiyama largely aligned herself with the black liberation movement, she also had a third world outlook, Aoki said. She was one of the people arrested after taking over the Statue of Liberty with Puerto Rico independence activists in 1977, for example.
She moved to Oakland in 1999 to be closer to family after suffering a stroke.
In recent years, she's continued to support various political causes, participating in anti-war demonstrations, immigrant rights' rallies and numerous community events. And she continues to write to political prisoners, many of whom she's known for decades.
She uses a walker to get around, and occasionally a wheelchair, but that doesn't stop her. She's got scores of cross-generational friends to shuttle her around.
"She's been in it for the long haul, since the '60s," said Mary Uyematsu Kao, a friend of the family. "She's represented Asian Americans in a lot of social justice and freedom struggles."
Kochiyama recently started a grassroots group, Asian Americans for the San Francisco Eight. The "SF8" case includes former Black Panthers and affiliates facing trial for the 1971 shooting death of a San Francisco police officer. Kochiyama has known some of them for decades, visiting them in prison when she lived in Harlem.
About half the jury in cases tried in San Francisco is Asian American, but Asian Americans know very little about the case, according to the group.
Sophy Wong, 32, first met the elder Kochiyama when Wong was a college student. Today, they work together side-by-side in the political group, though Yuri is her grandmother's age.
"You realize she's the most humble person, and gives huge props to everyone else but herself," said Wong, an HIV doctor in San Francisco. "At the same time, when injustice happens in the world, she's there and speaks out about it."
Kochiyama will be honored later this month by a local youth group, Asian Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership, for their 10-year anniversary event.
Wong, who says Yuri Kochiyama is a role model for the younger generations, added that in progressive and liberal circles, people are often angry, loud, and not-so-humble - a contrast to the way Kochiyama operates.
"Yuri represents to me the ability to be humble, yet fierce, at the same time," Wong said.