Minoru Yasui: Celebrating a Legacy of Civil Rights Activism

Minoru “Min” Yasui was one of four Japanese Americans who fought the legality of exclusion and/or detention during World War II all the way to the Supreme Court. While he is best known for his own legal battle, Yasui remained deeply committed to advancing civil rights and justice until his death in 1986. In November 2015, he was posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his actions. On the October 19, 2016 centennial anniversary of his birth, we take a moment to honor Yasui’s life and legacy. 

Minoru Yasui was born and raised in Hood River, Oregon, to immigrant parents who were fruit farmers. He had eight brothers and sisters, and was his high school salutatorian in 1933. Yasui attended the University of Oregon for his bachelor’s degree and went on to earn his law degree there in 1939, becoming the first Japanese American to graduate from Oregon’s law school. But as a Nisei he was unable to find work as a lawyer, so he took a position at the Japanese Consulate General of Chicago as a speechwriter and managing correspondence in English.

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Min Yasui (center) with brothers Kay (left) and Ches (right) as young children in Mosier, Oregon circa 1923. Photo courtesy of the Yasui Family Collection.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Yasui quit his consular job immediately and returned to Oregon. He’d been an ROTC cadet in college and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Reserves after he graduated. He was initially ordered to report at Fort Vancouver in Washington but when he arrived for duty he was turned away on account of his Japanese ancestry; nine subsequent attempts to enlist yielded the same result. Also in the days immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack, Yasui’s father was arrested as a potential threat and sent to a series of army and Justice Department administered internment camps until the end of the war.

On March 28, 1942, Yasui walked through downtown Portland after 8 pm, deliberately breaking the curfew. When no one noticed his lawbreaking, he approached a policeman and demanded to be arrested. He was only told to go home. So he marched into the police station and demanded to be arrested, where the officer on duty obliged.

Yasui was ultimately convicted in his challenge of the curfew and lost his appeal in front of the Supreme Court. He spent nine months in solitary confinement before being sent to the Minidoka concentration camp. He was allowed to leave in 1944 for a job in Chicago, as a laborer in an ice plant. By September of that year, he had moved to Denver.

Yasui’s lasting legacy nationally is as one of the Japanese Americans who objected publicly to exclusion during World War II, and took the fight all the way to the Supreme Court. But in Denver, he’s remembered for his long career as a civil rights advocate and a leader within city government.

He took the Colorado bar exam in 1945 and had the highest scores of all the candidates. However, he was denied admission to the state’s bar because of his wartime criminal record. He appealed to the state supreme court and won that case; he was admitted to the Colorado bar in January of 1946. That same year be married True Shibata, who had been incarcerated at Amache concentration camp in southeast Colorado. The couple had three daughters.

Yasui opened a law practice in the heart of Denver’s postwar Japantown, where he would accept barter for legal work. In one instance, he received a live turkey to be eaten one Thanksgiving, but his wife didn’t have the heart to butcher the bird and they gave it away.

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Minoru Yasui, left, receives the Nisei of the Biennium award by Fred Ross. From Scene the Pictorial Magazine Vol. 4 No. 4, August 1952, p. 13.

He remained active in Japanese American organizations, including the Japanese American Citizens League and the Japanese Association of Colorado. He lobbied for the Evacuation Claims Act in the 1948 Congress, and from 1976 to 1984 served on the JACL’s National Committee for Redress, and against a more restrictive alien land law introduced in the Oregon State Legislature in 1945.

He also fought discrimination beyond the Japanese community. He was a founding member of the Urban League of Denver, an African American organization, in 1946, and helped found the Latin American Research and Service Agency (an Hispanic civil rights organization) and Denver Native Americans United.

Because of his cross-cultural advocacy, Yasui was appointed to Denver’s Community Relations Commission (later renamed Denver’s Human Rights Commission) in 1959 and was made executive director of the commission in 1967. Because he had such strong relationships with other minority groups, he was credited with preventing race riots during the turbulent civil rights era of the late ’60s. Yasui reached out to Denver’s Black community with diplomacy and Denver avoided the violence that erupted in other major cities.

Yasui continued to fight his wartime arrest record until his death. In 1983 he filed a motion requesting the court to reverse his conviction, dismiss his indictment, agree there had been governmental misconduct and find that the proclamation that he had been convicted under for breaking curfew was unconstitutional. The district court vacated his conviction but didn’t agree to his other claims. He died on Nov. 12 1986, while waiting to be heard in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which dismissed the case after his death. The Supreme Court agreed with the Appeals Court’s decision and Yasui’s case was closed.

Thirty years after Yasui’s death, his legacy lives on. In November 2015, President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Yasui. In dedicating the Medal, Obama said of Yasui:

“It was a seemingly ordinary act that defied the discriminatory military curfew imposed on Japanese Americans during World War II.  Min took his case to the Supreme Court and lost, a decision he fought for the rest of his life.  Yet despite what Japanese Americans endured — suspicion, hostility, forced removal, internment — Min never stopped believing in the promise of his country.  He never stopped fighting for equality and justice for all.  ‘We believe in the greatness and in the great ideals of this country,’ he once said.  ‘We think that there is a future for all humanity in the United States of America.’  Today, Min’s legacy has never been more important. It is a call to our national conscience; a reminder of our enduring obligation to be ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ — an America worthy of his sacrifice.”

Other efforts seek to preserve Yasui’s legacy and spread his message: Yasui’s youngest daughter, Holly Yasui, is directing the film, Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice. The Minoru Yasui Tribute Project promotes Yasui’s legacy of civil rights advocacy. Among other projects, this ad hoc group of family, friends, admirers and supporters of Minoru Yasui has been working towards a centennial celebration of his birth, several of which are being held today in Hood River, Oregon. In February 2016, the state legislature there voted unanimously to designate March 28 of each year as Minoru Yasui Day. Upon passage of this legislation, Kimberly McCullough, ACLU of Oregon’s legislative director said, “Min’s story is a reminder that we must remain vigilant to protect freedom for all people.”

Never Give Up! trailer

By: Densho Communications Manager Natasha Varner with biographical material excerpted from Gil Asakwa’s Densho Encyclopedia entry on Minoru Yasui

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