Yuri Kochiyama turns 88 today. Born on May 19, 1921, Yuri grew up in a white middle class suburb of San Pedro, California. Her life was irreparably changed when Pearl Harbor was bombed. She and her family were forcibly removed from their homes and interned at detention camps setup for Japanese Americans during World War II. There, Yuri connected the treatment of Japanese Americans with the history of racism in this country, where people of color are dispossessed of land, labor, and so-often freedom. Yuri and her husband moved to Harlem in the 1960s, drawn by the burgeoning political activism of the civil rights and Black nationalist movements. She became acquainted with Malcolm X and joined his Organization of Afro-American Unity, when he departed from the Nation of Islam. She famously cradled Malcolm in her arms, when he was assassinated on February 21, 1965 at the Audubon Ballroom. Image by Urban Envy.
more than just a footnote to Malcolm, Yuri continues to fight for the liberation of people of color, both domestically and globally. I first met Yuri in 2004, during a trip to the Bay Area. A friend who was a long-time acquaintance of Yuri’s in Harlem suggested that I look her up. I found her, a small woman reliant on a walker with tennis balls stuck at the ends. What she lacked in stature, she made up with energy. She had just returned that afternoon from a visit to political prisoner Marilyn Buck in federal penitentiary in Dublin. Yet she was not tired, she was curious about the organizing I was involved with in NYC. She listened with wide-eyes at my descriptions of campaigns, asking questions, and every now and then pausing to remark "Oh Gee!" For Yuri, as Diane Fujino cited in her book Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama (University of Minnesota Press, 2005):
"The Movement is contagious and awesome because the people in it are the spirit of the Movement. And the Movement will continue because new concerned people will rejuvenate and revitalize this never-ending struggle. It just always makes you want to be part of it."
Happy birthday, Yuri Kochiyama.