Yuri Kochiyama met the African-American activist Malcolm X, at the time a prominent member of the Nation of Islam, in October 1963 during a protest against the arrest of about 600 minority construction workers in Brooklyn, who had been protesting for jobs. Kochiyama joined his pan-Africanist Organization of Afro-American Unity. She was present at his assassination on February 21, 1965, at theAudubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, New York City, and held him in her arms as he lay dying. A famous photo appeared in Life magazine capturing that moment. Kochiyama also had close relationships with many other revolutionary nationalist leaders including Robert F. Williams (who gave Kochiyama her first copy of the Mao’s Little Red Book).
Kochiyama became a mentor to the radical end of the Asian American movement that grew during and after the Vietnam War protests. As organizers of East Coast Japanese Americans for Redress, Yuri and Bill advocated for reparations and a government apology for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and spearheaded the campaign to bring the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to New York. President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988 which, among other things, awarded $20,000 to each Japanese American internment survivor. In later years, Kochiyama was active in opposing profiling of and bigotry against Muslims, Middle Easterners, and South Asians in the United States, a phenomenon she viewed as similar to the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II.