Activists, residents, and a few tourists, assembled last Wednesday, May 19, in Harlem to celebrate the restored mural of Malcolm X and Yuri Kochiyama at 125th Street and Old Broadway. Before marching to commemorate Malcolm’s birthday, which is also the birthdate of Kochiyama (1921), Ho Chi Minh (1890), and playwright Lorraine Hansberry (1930), the crowd was entertained and enlightened by a coterie of speakers, including moderator Brother Shep who was assisted by other Asian and Latinx activists.
With the mural at his back, Shep informed the listeners about the bond between Kochiyama and Malcolm after their first meeting in 1963, “and from that day until Malcolm’s assassination two years later,” he said Yuri was committed to his advocacy of human rights. Through all the turmoil and turbulence of the ’60s, especially during Malcolm’s break with the Nation of Islam, Yuri was steadfast in her admiration and loyalty to Malcolm. When he was killed on February 21, 1965, Yuri was not only in the audience, she was among the first to rush to the stage to comfort her wounded friend. One famous photo of the incident pictures Yuri cradling Malcolm’s head in her lap.
Akemi Kochiyama, Yuri’s granddaughter who lives in Harlem and is the co-director of the Yuri Kochiyama Archives Project, extolled the memory of the great lady and how proud she was of her association with Malcolm and the struggle for Black liberation. She recounted her grandmother’s passion for civil and human rights and particularly her friendship with Malcolm. Some of her remarks were very similar to ones I had heard and read about on other occasions when remembering her grandmother’s connection to Malcolm. “I think what is really interesting,” she recalled once, “is that my grandparents hosted Japanese writers and a group of atomic bomb survivors who really wanted to meet Malcolm. They were on a world peace tour and study mission and they were really interested in Malcolm and believed what he said was relevant to them. Yuri said that more than anyone else, they wanted to meet Malcolm. I think those connections show broader international contexts.”
Speaker after speaker expounded on the combined influence Malcolm and Yuri had on politics in the ’60s and ’70s. “Power to the people,” Brother Bullwhip said at the beginning of his comments at the rally. “Malcolm was a forerunner of the Black Panther Party,” he said, “and we did what we could to uphold his legacy and end police brutality.”
Former Panther Jamal Joseph brought members of his Impact Theater and they performed a sizzling dance and rap routine consistent with the historic moment. Pam Africa, reminded the audience of the ongoing fight Mumia Abu-Jamal is waging against the ravages of disease and prison oppression.
Brother Baba Zayid Muhammad, as ever, delivered his energetic remarks and voiced his concern that the pandemic had limited the usual rallies and events to celebrate Malcolm’s life, including the annual journey to the gravesite and the closing of stores on 125th Street.
Even high above 125th Street where the No. 1 train runs, the sound of the rally could be heard, and in spirit it resonated well beyond the powerful messages left by Malcolm and Yuri.