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“The legacy I would like to leave is that people try to build bridges and not walls.” –Yuri Kochiyama
“I am against every form of racism and segregation, every form of discrimination. I believe in human beings, and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of their color.” –Malcolm X
May 19 marks the anniversary of the birth of two leaders in the battle for civil rights in the United States: Yuri Kochiyama, tireless political activist for issues ranging from international political prisoner rights to nuclear disarmament to Asian American empowerment; and enigmatic civil rights leader Malcolm X. Born on the same day, four years and a continent apart, Kochiyama was with Malcolm X as he addressed the Organization of Afro-American Unity at the Audubon Ballroom when he was assassinated in 1965. Yuri Kochiyama said of meeting Malcolm X, “He opened my mind, like opening a door to a new world.” She went on to give her voice and strength to the battle for the rights of minorities for close to five more decades until her peaceful passing at the age of 93 in 2014.
The two extraordinarily influential leaders strode two very different paths to their positions as leaders in the battle against racial inequity.
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of a Baptist preacher who advocated for the black nationalist ideals of Marcus Garvey. Malcolm’s father faced threats from the Ku Klux Klan and the white supremacist Black Legion. In 1931, his father was killed, an act that authorities ruled as accidental, but the Little family believed to be a brutal murder perpetrated by white supremacists. Upon his father’s death, Malcolm’s family fell apart; he was placed in foster care, dropped out of high school and in 1946 was convicted of burglary. It was during his seven years in prison that Malcolm spent long hours reading in the library, participated in debate classes and joined the Nation of Islam. As a devoted follower of the Nation of Islam (“NOI”), Malcolm relinquished “Little,” considering it a slave name, and adopted the surname “X” to signify his lost tribal name.
Intelligent and articulate, Malcolm X was appointed national spokesman for the NOI and became a media magnet. Charismatic, challenging and often militant, Malcolm provoked nationwide focus on racial injustice.
Sometimes one is born into it, and sometimes it takes extreme circumstances to ignite the fire for the fight for freedom. Mary Yuriko Nakahara was born in 1921 in California. The daughter of immigrant parents, she later would describe her young self as “a small-town gal living comfortably, and totally apolitical.” Her complacency was upended with the onset of World War II when Yuri and her family were forced to relocate to internment camps. During her incarceration at the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas, Yuri was not only confronted by the extreme bigotry that lead to the unwarranted imprisonment of tens of thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans, she was also exposed to the racism of the Jim Crow south.
While confined in Jerome, Yuri wrote for the camp newspaper, organized a letter-writer campaign to Nisei soldiers serving in Europe, and was active in the United Service Organization (“USO”). It was at a USO event that she met Bill Kochiyama, a GI serving in the all Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, whom she would later marry.
Following the War, Yuri and Bill married and moved to New York and continued to be active in community service. As the Civil Rights Movement grew, Yuri began inviting activists to speak at open house gatherings held in the Kochiyama’s small housing project apartment. She became involved with the Harlem Parent’s Committee, organizing school boycotts to demand quality education for inner-city children. Yuri was arrested for blocking the entrance of a construction site to demand jobs for Black and Puerto Rican workers and whilst awaiting her hearing on civil disobedience charges, Malcolm X walked into the courthouse lobby. Kochiyama elbowed through the throng of admirers to ask Malcolm for his handshake and an alliance was begun that would last his lifetime and leave a legacy that continues through the present day.
The California Civil Rights Law Group pays tribute to these inspirational leaders in the fight for the rights of the disenfranchised.