Not Just A 'Black Thing': An Asian-American's Bond With Malcolm X

Aug 19, 2013
Originally published on June 2, 2014 1:22 am

The brief friendship of Malcolm X and Yuri Kochiyama began close to 50 years ago with a handshake.

Diane Fujino, chairwoman of the Asian-American studies department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, details the moment in her biography Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama.

Kochiyama and her eldest son, 16-year-old Billy, were arrested along with hundreds of other people, mainly African-Americans, during a protest in Brooklyn, N.Y., in October 1963.

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

In walks Malcolm X, who was quickly mobbed by adoring activists.

Kochiyama described the scene in a Democracy Now! interview in 2008. "I felt so bad that I wasn't black, that this should be just a black thing," she recalled. "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.' "

Eventually, Kochiyama called out to Malcolm X, "Can I shake your hand?"

"What for?" he demanded.

"To congratulate you for giving direction to your people," she finally mustered.

Malcolm X smiled and extended his hand. Kochiyama remembered how she could hardly believe she was meeting the most prominent black nationalist leader of the time.

'A Nail That Sticks Out'

Kochiyama's friendship with Malcolm X fascinated playwright Tim Toyama, who wrote a one-act play called Yuri and Malcolm X.

"Malcolm X's movement was probably the last thing you would imagine a Japanese-American person, especially a woman, to be involved with," he says.

Toyama's father and Kochiyama are cousins and nisei, children of Japanese immigrants. They were part of a generation that was rounded up by the American government and forced to live behind barbed wire during World War II.

"There's a Japanese saying that a nail that sticks out gets hammered down," Toyama explains. "I think most Japanese Americans, especially nisei, did not want to stick out, especially after the war."

Kochiyama couldn't help but stick out. She lived in New York City housing projects among black and Puerto Rican neighbors. Kochiyama began participating in sit-ins and inviting Freedom Riders to speak at weekly open houses in the family's apartment.

From Activist To Radical

Audee Kochiyama-Holman, Yuri's eldest daughter, remembers feeling shy around the constant flow of visitors in their home, where her mother taped newspaper clippings to the walls and dinner plates often shared space on the kitchen table with piles of leaflets.

"Our house felt like it was the movement 24/7," Kochiyama-Holman recalls.

In the summer of 1963, a Kochiyama family vacation included a visit to Birmingham, Ala., to see charred houses and storefronts left behind by racial protests. The Kochiyamas also visited the 16th Street Baptist Church weeks before a bombing there killed four black girls.

"It was one of the first news stories in the civil rights movement that our mother sat us down to talk about," Kochiyama-Holman says.

The growing momentum of the civil rights movement and meeting Malcolm X in 1963 radicalized Kochiyama, who became more interested in black nationalism. FBI files later described her as a "ring leader" of black nationalists and a "Red Chinese agent."

The Final Meeting

Kochiyama and Malcolm X stayed in touch through postcards and even a visit to the Kochiyamas' apartment. Their last meeting was on Feb. 21, 1965 — just 16 months after their first handshake — in New York City's Audubon Ballroom.

That Sunday afternoon, gunmen killed Malcolm X moments after he approached the podium to address a weekly meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which Malcolm X founded after he was expelled from the Nation of Islam.

Most of the audience in the ballroom fell to the ground after the gunfire, crawling away for safety. But Kochiyama headed toward the injured Malcolm X, who was lying on the floor.

"I just picked up his head and just put it on my lap," Kochiyama said in the Democracy Now! interview. "I said, 'Please, Malcolm! Please, Malcolm! Stay alive!' "

The moment was captured in a photo in Life magazine in 1965. She's the unidentified Asian woman peering worriedly through horn-rimmed glasses at a soon-to-be lifeless Malcolm X. His blood-soaked shirt is open, exposing his bullet-riddled body.

Illness and age have slowed down Kochiyama, now 92, drastically over the past couple of years, her eldest daughter says.

But for decades after her brief friendship with Malcolm X, Kochiyama remained committed to causes in the black, Latino and Asian-American communities.

In 1988, she and other Japanese-American internees, including her late husband Bill, celebrated the signing of the Civil Liberties Act. It was a formal government apology that provided reparations to World War II internees — and a milestone Kochiyama helped to achieve 25 years ago this month.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Yuri Kochiyama died of natural causes on June 1, 2014. You can read more about her exceptional life here.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This summer, NPR has been looking back at a landmark year in the Civil Rights Movement, 1963. It's a time in American history that's often remembered in black and white, even though some Asian-American activists also took part in the movement.

NPR's Hansi Lo Wang tells us about one Japanese-American activist who formed an unlikely bond with Malcolm X.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: The brief friendship of Malcolm X and Yuri Kochiyama began with a handshake. Diane Fujino, in her biography of Kochiyama, details that moment in October of 1963. Kochiyama and her eldest son, 16-year-old Billy, were arrested during a protest in Brooklyn, New York, along with hundreds of others, mainly African-Americans, says Fujino.

DIANE FUJINO: They're in this packed courthouse. There's a lot of activists who are awaiting their hearing on these civil disobedience charges.

WANG: And in walks Malcolm X. Kochiyama described the scene to "Democracy Now!" in 2008.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEMOCRACY NOW!")

YURI KOCHIYAMA: 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 hand and Malcolm so happy, I said, gosh darn it, I'm going to try and meet him somehow.

WANG: So she called out to Malcolm X: Can I shake your hand? What for? he demanded. To congratulate you for giving direction to your people, she finally mustered. Malcolm X smiled and extended his hand. Kochiyama remembered how she could hardly believe she was meeting the most prominent black nationalist leader of the time.

TIM TOYAMA: Malcolm X's movement was probably the last thing you would imagine a Japanese-American person, especially a woman, to be involved with.

WANG: Their friendship fascinated Tim Toyama enough to write a play called "Yuri and Malcolm X." Toyama's father and Yuri are cousins and nisei, children of Japanese immigrants, part of a generation that was rounded up by the government and forced to live behind barbed wire during World War II.

TOYAMA: There's a Japanese saying that a nail that sticks out gets hammered down. and so I think most Japanese-Americans, especially nisei, they did not want to stick out, especially after the war.

WANG: But Yuri Kochiyama couldn't help but stick out. Living in New York City housing projects with black and Puerto Rican neighbors helped spark her interest in the civil rights movement. Kochiyama began participating in sit-ins and inviting Freedom Riders to speak at weekly open houses in the family's apartment.

AUDEE KOCHIYAMA-HOLMAN: Our house felt like it was the movement 24/7.

WANG: Audee Kochiyama-Holman, Yuri's daughter, remembers feeling shy around the constant flow of visitors in their home. She says Yuri taped newspaper clippings to the walls and at their long kitchen table dinner plates often shared space with piles of leaflets.

In the summer of '63, a Kochiyama family vacation included a visit to Birmingham, Alabama to see charred houses and storefronts left behind by racial protests. The Kochiyamas also visited the 16th Street Baptist Church weeks before a bombing there killed four black girls.

KOCHIYAMA-HOLMAN: It was one of the first news stories in the civil rights movement that my mother sat us down to talk about.

WANG: The growing momentum of the civil rights movement and meeting Malcolm X in 1963 radicalized Yuri Kochiyama. FBI files later described her as a ring leader of black nationalists and a, quote, "Red Chinese agent." She and Malcolm X stayed in touch through postcards and even a visit to the Kochiyama's apartment. Their last meeting was on February 21, 1965, just 16 months after that first handshake. An eyewitness described the scene in '65 to an ABC reporter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I turned around to look at Malcolm, and I remember him saying stay calm, stay cool. And I remember hearing over my right shoulder the gunfire.

WANG: Gunfire that killed Malcolm X that Sunday afternoon in New York City's Audubon Ballroom, the weekly meeting place for the Organization of Afro-American Unity, founded by Malcolm X after he left the Nation of Islam. Most of the audience in the ballroom fell to the ground, crawling away for safety. But not Yuri Kochiyama, who moved towards Malcolm X.

KOCHIYAMA: Malcolm had fallen straight back and he was on his back lying on the floor. And so I just picked up his head and just put it on my lap. I said, Please, Malcolm. Please, Malcolm, stay alive.

WANG: That moment was captured in a black and white photo in Life magazine in 1965. Today, Yuri Kochiyama is 92. Her daughter Audee says illness and age have slowed her mother down drastically over the past couple of years. But for decades, after her brief friendship with Malcolm X, Kochiyama remained committed to causes in the black, Latino and Asian-American communities.

In 1988, she and other Japanese-American internees celebrated the signing of the Civil Liberties Act. It was a formal government apology that provided reparations to World War II internees, and it was a milestone Yuri Kochiyama helped to achieve 25 years ago this month. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.