The Last Revolutionary 

Yuri Kochiyama possesses one of the boldest voices raised against the war on terrorism. As a former internment-camp prisoner and peer of Malcolm X, she brings history and vitality to what little remains of "The Movement."

Page 4 of 7

"If Yuri was here, she would have brought all these groups together; I'm sure of it," he said. "Yuri's like a center of communication. That's the key to Yuri. She brings all these things together. She's a uniter."

Yuri loved New York from the moment she arrived, and she fit right in. She followed the events of the civil rights movement closely in the newspaper and wanted to join, to begin her transformation from Bible-reading soldier¹s wife to radical activist and supporter of armed revolution. But first she wanted six kids. Billy, Audee, Aichi, Eddie, Jimmy, and Tommy came into the world.

For twelve years after the war, the Kochiyamas lived in a New York housing project that stretched from 62nd to 65th Street. Then in 1960, when Tommy was just a year old, the family moved to the newly built Manhattanville Housing Projects in Harlem. They carted their belongings on the subway during a blizzard, going back and forth between the 66th and 125th Street stations.

"So then I told my husband, 'I hope you don't mind, I want to get involved in the Movement. Don't worry, I'll take the kids with me.' "

And so the Kochiyamas joined the Harlem Parents' Committee. When one too many kids were hit by cars in the street, the committee leaders organized a sit-in. Along with other parents, Yuri put her kids in an intersection to demand more street lights. The city added some. Also, the committee got the sanitation department to pick up garbage more frequently and the Metropolitan Transit Authority to slow down -- and quiet down -- its subway trains as they approached stations in Harlem.

The Kochiyamas encouraged the arts as well as activism in their children, and the four oldest became active themselves. One year Audee, fifteen, then Billy, eighteen, went down to Mississippi by themselves to participate in the Freedom Rides. Growing up, Eddie didn't think it was so strange that his mother took him to demonstrations. "It was just something we had to do," he said. Eddie didn't realize how different his parents were until one day, in junior high school, he helped organize an antiwar rally at school, and was suspended. "I was scared to tell my parents, but there was no way around it, so I just told them. Then my mom busted out and said, 'Son, I'm so proud of you.' "

Every weekend, the Kochiyamas held an open house at their home. What started as a gathering for artists and musicians over the years became increasingly political. "If you were a musician, poet, whatever talent you might have, it'd be a big mistake to tell her that," said granddaughter Akemi, who recently bought a house in Harlem. "She would make you perform. ... She would put you on the spot. In fact, when my grandfather told her that he's from New York and he could do the lindy hop, she was teaching Sunday school. ... So I think for their first date, she invited him to come to Sunday school. ... And he came and sat down and she said, 'Class, this is Bill Kochiyama. And he's going to teach you how to do the lindy hop.' And he was like, 'What?!' So she made him teach the lindy hop to the whole class. And I think he was madly in love with her after that."

Many a civil rights or revolutionary leader passed through apartment 3B. "Whatever was happening in the outside world felt like it was happening in our house," daughter Audee Kochiyama-Holman said. The children grew used to people crashing on the couches or even living with them for months at a time. For holidays, the Kochiyamas invited so many friends that people ate standing in the hallway or in the bedrooms.

As a middle-aged Asian woman, Yuri earned her respect slowly in black groups. She eventually dropped her first name in favor of her middle one. "In the '60s everyone was changing their names," she said. "I was in a couple of black groups and my daughter said, 'Mom, you can't go in there as Mary.' "

The year 1963 marked a busy one for the family. The Harlem Parents' Committee boycotted the public schools, starting the Harlem Freedom School to teach black history. Yuri, Bill, and their three oldest children attended. That summer, Yuri and the kids also joined hundreds of demonstrators who showed up daily at the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn to demand jobs for blacks and Puerto Ricans. As trucks full of construction materials approached the site, protesters linked arms and refused to budge, eventually carried off by police. There, Yuri and Billy were arrested for the first time.

But it wasn't until October 1963, when Yuri and the other six hundred arrested protesters were arraigned, that she met Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam's No. 2 man, inside a Brooklyn courthouse. He was surrounded by a circle of young blacks. Yuri didn't know if she should approach him because she wasn't black, but she kept inching closer and closer.

When she reached the outside of the cluster, Malcolm looked up and saw her.

"He must have thought what the heck is this Asian woman doing here?" she mused.

Yuri shouted, "Can I shake your hand?"

"What for?" he asked.

"For what you're doing for your people."

Tags: ,

Latest in Feature

Author Archives

  • And You

    Hoops 'n' hip-hop
    • Jun 11, 2003
  • Who Was That Masked Muralist?

    Justin Artifice is on a stealthy mission to beautify Oakland's urban landscape.
    • Jan 29, 2003
  • More»

News Blogs

Most Popular Stories

Special Reports

The Beer Issue 2020

The Decade in Review

The events and trends that shaped the Teens.

Best of the East Bay


© 2021 Telegraph Media    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation