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GoodHonors: Yuri Kochiyama

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For this special AAPI Month edition of GoodHonors, we’re giving Yuri Kochiyama her much-deserved flowers. Read on for a brief bio of her work as an activist.

Recalled in Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama by Diane Fujino, Japanese-American activist Yuri Kochiyama details the first time she met Malcolm X, an experience that would forever shape her life.

The brief meeting took place in October 1963 during a protest in Brooklyn, NY.

"[They were] in this packed courthouse," Fujino says. "[There were] a lot of activists who [were] waiting their hearing on the civil disobedience charges."

Malcolm X entered the building and was swarmed by supporters and fans.

In a 2008 interview, Kochiyama remembers her thoughts during that exact moment, “I felt so bad that I wasn't Black, that this should be just a Black thing. But the more I see them all so happily shaking his hands and Malcolm so happy, I said, 'Gosh, darn it! I'm going to try to meet him somehow.' "

She asked Malcolm, “Can I shake your hand?”

To which he replied, “What for?”

"To congratulate you for giving direction to your people,” she responded.

Malcolm smiled, extended his hand, and a friendship was born. Kochiyama’s activism was further ignited after meeting Malcolm and she participated in sit-ins and hosted Freedom Riders and open houses in her apartment. She and Malcolm kept in touch with each other via postcards during this time.

The pair’s final meeting was on the date of Malcolm X’s murder, a mere 16 months later. Chances are you’ve seen iconic images from that date with Yuri in the background. (if not you can view it here.)

She recounted the incident saying, “I just picked up his head and just put it on my lap. I said, 'Please, Malcolm! Please, Malcolm! Stay alive!' "

Though influential in the fight for Black equality, Yuri was also involved in Latino and Asian-American causes as well.

Yuri passed away in 2021 in Berkeley, CA leaving behind two children Billy Kochiyama, Aichi Kochiyama.