The award, given posthumously by President Barack Obama to the late civil rights activist, will be on display in Salem and Portland.
PORTLAND, ORE. — The Presidential Medal of Freedom, posthumously awarded to Oregonian Minoru Yasui (1916-86) by President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony on Nov. 24, 2015, will be on display in both Salem and Portland this month.
The Oregon Historical Society is sponsoring the exhibit, in partnership with the Minoru Yasui Tribute Committee and the Oregon Nikkei Endowment.
To kick off the exhibit, the medal was put on display at the Oregon State Capitol on Feb. 1 to commemorate the opening of the 2016 Legislative Session.
From Feb. 2-19, the medal will then be on exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland.
“Minoru Yasui was truly one of Oregon’s most courageous and historic figures,” said OHS Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk. “The Presidential Medal of Freedom is a fitting tribute to his remarkable life and legacy, and we are honored that the Yasui family is allowing us to share it with the public.”
Created through an Executive Order signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is bestowed by the president of the United States and is the country’s highest civilian award. Yasui, a Hood River native, is the first Oregonian to receive this prestigious honor.
In announcing Yasui’s selection, the White House Press Office stated, “Minoru Yasui was a civil and human rights leader known for his continuous defense of the ideals of democracy embodied in our Constitution. Yasui challenged the constitutionality of a military curfew ordered during World War II on the grounds of racial discrimination, and spent nine months in solitary confinement during the subsequent legal battle. In 1943, the Supreme Court upheld the military curfew order.”
During the awards presentation, President Obama said, “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 sacrifices.”
Yasui is the first Japanese American to graduate from the University of Oregon School of Law and the first to become a member of the Oregon Bar. He was born in Hood River in 1916, and he made national history by challenging the constitutionality of the military curfew imposed on Japanese American citizens in World War II.
Following the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, the military imposed a curfew that ordered all German nationals, Italian nationals and persons of Japanese ancestry to remain in their homes between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. Yasui believed that the military orders were unconstitutional as applied to U.S. citizens and that the constitutional rights of Japanese Americans would be upheld by the courts.
On March 28, 1942, he walked the streets of Portland to intentionally violate the military curfew, which eventually led to his arrest and trial. He was sentenced to one year in prison and a fine of $5,000. Yasui appealed his case. He spent nine months in solitary confinement at the Multnomah County Jail as his case wound its way from the lower courts to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June 1943 ruled that while Yasui did not lose his U.S. citizenship, his rights could be overridden — based on race — in time of war. Yasui was sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho, where he remained incarcerated until mid-1944.
In 1981, Yasui was named chair of the Japanese American Citizens League committee on the wrongful imprisonment of Japanese Americans in World War II.
He successfully filed appeals to the district court to vacate his conviction, but he also requested that the court recognize that the incarceration of 120,000 persons because of their Japanese ancestry was unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the appeal was moot, affirmed the motion to dismiss and dashed the hopes of many. The Yasui case was over.
Yasui died on Nov. 12, 1986, before the Supreme Court heard his case. His final return to Oregon occurred 40 years after he had left, when his ashes were buried beneath a pair of giant cedars in Hood River.
“It was my belief,” Yasui once said, “that no military authority has the right to subject any United States citizen to any requirement that does not equally apply to all other U.S. citizens. If we believe in America, if we believe in equality and democracy, if we believe in law and justice, then each of us, when we see or believe errors are being made, has an obligation to make every effort to correct them.”
In addition to displaying Yasui’s Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Oregon Historical Society also contains extensive manuscripts and artifacts from the Yasui family. Items from the collection will accompany the display of the medal at the OHS.
For more than a century, the Oregon Historical Society has served as the state’s collective memory, preserving a vast collection of artifacts, photographs, maps, manuscript materials, books, films and oral histories.
The Oregon Historical Society’s museum is located at 1200 S.W. Park Ave. in Portland. It is open daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Noon-5 p.m. on Sundays. The research library is open on Tuesdays from 1-5 p.m. and Wednesday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is free every day to members and Multnomah County residents; general admission is $11 and includes access to both the museum and library.
— Additional reporting by Peggy Nagae