Imagine the courage it takes to deliberately get yourself arrested in order to protest an unfair law.
On March 28, 1942, Minoru Yasui, purposefully broke the curfew established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt under Executive Order 9066, that restricted dusk to dawn movement of Nationals from Germany, Italy and Japan, as well as all Americans of Japanese descent. This order was FDR’s response to Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, precipitating the United States entry into World War II against Japan, and their German and Italian allies.
Multiple restrictions were imposed under 9066 aimed at disempowering immigrants from those countries with which we were at war, but most fervently aimed at the Japanese who had attacked Pearl Harbor. Within months of its implementation, Executive Order 9066 became the justification for the forced imprisonment of 120,000 West Coast people of Japanese descent, the majority of whom were U.S. citizens.
This is personal. Six of my family were incarcerated from 1942 until 1945, including my father (who was four years old when he arrived in “camp”), grandparents, and great grandparents. As a Yonsei, fourth generation Japanese-American, I consider it my duty to keep my family’s story alive so that we may learn from our mistakes and never repeat them.
For almost a century prior to the mass incarceration of west coast Japanese, Asian immigrants had been “imported” as manual laborers to do the back breaking work building railroads, mining gold and silver and planting fields and orchards. Asians were the frequent target of socially accepted, verbal and physical racist attacks. With the growth of the Asian work force, racist attacks escalated, and the desire to ensure they did not settle in the US intensified. Racism was codified in “Yellow Peril” laws that severely limited immigration, prohibited land and business ownership, and eliminated a path to citizenship, with all the rights attributed to that title.
Minoru (Min) Yasui was born and raised in Hood River, Oregon – a beautiful valley bookended by Mt. Hood to the south and Mt. Adams to the north. The strawberry fields and orchards built on the backs of Japanese immigrants during the 1900s were the playground of this American born citizen. While his family worked the orchards and built a thriving mercantile store (purchased in their children’s names) Min was a serious student, passionate about citizenship and the rights enshrined in the US Constitution. Yasui graduated University of Oregon, becoming its first Japanese-American to earn a law degree, passed the Oregon Bar and served in the US army infantry reserve.
Yasui knew his rights as a citizen, and believed the curfew was unconstitutional. On March 28, 1942, he defied the curfew order and walked the streets of Portland after dusk trying to get arrested. Finally, he went to a police station and presented himself as a “criminal” having broken curfew. Min was arrested, declared not a US Citizen, fined and sentenced to a year in prison. Waiting to appeal, Min spent nine months in solitary confinement at Multnomah County jail. His case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where he was found to be an American citizen, but his guilty verdict was upheld. He was then sent to Minidoka incarceration camp until Sept 1944.
Only years later did Minoru Yasui receive the recognition that he deserved as a person who caused “good trouble” (as John Lewis would say). Min stood up for all of us in contesting the government’s restrictions against Japanese-Americans, working tirelessly to get an apology from the US government for its wrongful incarceration of Japanese Americans and award a nominal amount for redress to the families who had suffered unjustly. His life work was seeking “Justice for All” marginalized people, establishing commissions and advisories for people of every race, faith, age, gender, socio economic level, immigrant or citizen status.
In November 2015, President Obama posthumously awarded Min the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the first Oregonian to receive this prestigious award. In 2016, Oregon officially designated March 28 as Minoru Yasui Day, in perpetuity.
Why is this relevant? Recently we have witnessed harassment and attacks against Asians throughout the US that are horrifying in their intensity. These attacks require us to think back to the time of Minoru Yasui when attacks were not only common place, but sanctioned by many local governments, and ultimately our national government through Executive Order 9066.
What can we do to help our Asian American neighbors? We can follow in Min’s footsteps and heed his words: “If there is suffering or pain that is unfairly imposed upon anyone, it’s my duty, it’s your duty, to try to alleviate it because that’s the way in which we gain a better life for all of us.”
As grant makers and philanthropists, we can help in this battle against pain and suffering by supporting organizations that are on the ground working everyday with Asian Americans, and other people of color, to keep them safe and show them they are valued. We can support those that are working to change policies that perpetuate oppression, help unite marginalized people to elevate their voices in solidarity, just as Min did throughout his life.
As individuals, we can walk alongside those oppressed, speak up when we see injustice, and keep teaching the lessons learned throughout history and it propensity to repeat itself. In Min’s own words, “What is done to the least of us can be done to all of us. I knew we had to protest it.”