Pioneering Japanese-American activist Yuri Kochiyama passed away on Sunday night. She was 93 years old. For some, she’s known as the woman who cradled Malcolm X as he lay dying on stage at the Audubon Ballroom in 1965 (“I just picked up his head and put it in my lap,” she recounted in a 2008 interview with Democracy Now! “I said, “Please, Malcolm! Please, Malcolm! Stay alive!”). But even that iconic image of her doesn’t do enough to capture the life she spent dedicated to social activism.
Kochiyama’s journey began with her family’s internment during World War II and wound its way through the Black Power and Black Arts Movements of the 1970s. She was instrumental in helping Japanese-Americans win reparations for their internment, and spent the last years of her life inspiring countless young activists.
“Most people make life; some people make history,” her biographer Diane Fujino told the San Francsico Chronicle in 2005 ahead of the release of “Yuri Kochiyama, Heartbeat of Struggle.” “Yuri organized her life around making history. I think of her as a very ordinary person, who’s done extraordinary things.”
She embodied the multiracial spirit of racial justice, and while there are plenty of tributes – like this song from Seattle-based hip-hop group Blue Scholars, or this heartfelt essay from Kochiyama’s granddaughter, Maya, or actress Sandra Oh’s performance of her speech on her internment – what’s most instructive is to listen to what she had to say about her own life.
In 1996, Kochiyama sat down with Angela Davis to talk about activism. They picked the conversation up again 12 years later. The documentary film, “Mountains That Take Wing” by C.A. Griffith & H.L.T. Quan, is long (more than 90 minutes) and not the best quality, but it documents how Kochiyama approached her life’s work. When asked by Davis what helped sustain her decades of activism, Kochiyama responded, “People in the movement sustain each other. It’s because their spirit is so contagious.”