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Yuri Kochiyama

Civil rights activist

Civil rights activist

Born: May 19, 1921; Died: June 1, 2014

Yuri Kochiyama, who has died aged 93, was a civil rights activist whose photograph famously appeared in Life magazine showing her cradling the head of Malcolm X moments after he was shot.

Among her many accomplishments during 50 years of work, Ms Kochiyama's activism led directly to the US Senate's agreement to pay reparations and apologise to Japanese-Americans and others who were interned during the Second World War.

She was born into a middle class family in San Pedro, California where her father Seiichi owned a marine supply business. She was bright and did well at school and studied journalism at college. However, the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 radically changed the family's lives.

The FBI came to their home and they were arrested and sent to prison. Kochiyama's father was recovering from ulcer surgery but was denied medical care in prison and died a few weeks later.

Ms Kochiyama and the rest of the family were then transferred to a camp in Arkansas where they were interned for two years. She was released in 1944 and met her husband Bill Kochiyama, a Japanese-American soldier fighting for the US and the couple moved to New York.

Ms Kochiyama then began to dedicate her life to social activism that spanned races, nationalities and causes, including vocal opposition to the Vietnam War and anti- apartheid policies in South Africa while supporting independence for Puerto Rico. In 1997, she joined a group of Puerto Ricans who took over the Statue of Liberty to draw attention to their struggle for independence.

She was living in New York when she forged an unlikely bond with Malcolm X. She began to study his ideas and joined his Organisation of Afro-American Unity and also for a time became a Muslim.

She credited Malcolm X with changing her life. "I was heading in one direction, integration," she said, "and he was going in another, total liberation, and he opened my eyes."

She later witnessed his assassination in New York in 1965. She was sitting in the front row of the Audubon Ballroom Auditorium when assassins burst in and gunned him down.

She crawled towards him and put his head in her lap.

"I said, 'Please Malcolm, stay alive' but he was dying."

In a statement, the California ­chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said of Ms Kochiyama: "Her tireless dedication to civil rights helped inspire generations of activists, including within the American Muslim community.

"She will be fondly remembered by all of us who continue to defend civil liberties and promote justice."

She was the author of a memoir, Passing It On, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

She played herself in the 1981 film Death of a Prophet: The Last Days of Malcolm X and was also the subject of two plays, Yuri and Malcolm X and Bits of Paradise.

She said of her activism: "I didn't wake up and decide to become an activist. But you couldn't help notice the inequities, the injustices. It was all around you."

She died in her sleep of natural causes and is survived by four of her children and several grandchildren.

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