By Gil Asakawa
History evolves in strange ways. The spotlight of posterity shines bright on some people, while others are left in the shadows, sometimes forgotten.
Minoru Yasui is one of the almost-forgotten, and undeservedly so. In Denver, at least, plenty of people remember his name and revere his memory. That’s because at the end of World War II, Yasui settled in Denver and established a rich legacy as an attorney and civil rights advocate, eventually spending almost 30 years running Denver’s Community Relations Commission (later renamed Denver’s Human Rights Commission), to which he was appointed in 1959.
In Denver, he’s a giant of civic engagement and civil rights. Early in his Denver career, he set up shop in the area that had once been a thriving Japantown, and he helped clients of all ethnicities. He kept fighting against the injustice of the concentration camps and lobbied for the Evacuation Claims Act from Congress in 1948, and from 1976-84 served on the JACL’s National Committee for Redress.
He was, of course, a lifelong member of JACL, but he didn’t just support Japanese American causes. He was a founder of Denver’s Urban League chapter with African-Americans and later helped establish the Latin American Research and Service Agency (an Hispanic civil rights organization) and Denver Native Americans United.
He was a natural to head the City of Denver’s Community Relations Commission, building bridges to communities of color. He’s often credited with preventing the same kind of race riots that engulfed other American cities in the tensest weeks of the 1960’s civil rights movement, especially after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination — he had such a strong relationship with black community leaders that he was able to help keep the peace.
His commitment to civic engagement and volunteerism is his strongest living legacy today. In Denver, every month a ceremony is held where a community volunteer is honored for his or her work within the community. At the end of the year, the monthly honorees are assembled for a luncheon to thank them again, publicly, for their volunteerism. The award was established while Yasui was alive and continues to this day, under the auspices of the Denver Foundation. The City of Denver named a municipal building for Yasui, and a bust of Yasui looks out over the gardens at Sakura Square downtown.
So, he’s remembered in Denver. But nationally, his legacy is less known, and that’s a shame.
Yasui was born and raised in Oregon, and his national act of bravery was in 1942, when, as a young attorney, he protested the curfew, travel restrictions and ultimate evacuation and internment set in motion by President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Yasui walked up and down the streets of Portland, trying to get arrested so he could make himself a legal test case.
Even though he was out past curfew, no one paid him any mind. He walked up to a cop and demanded to be arrested and was told to go home. After walking into a police station and demanding to be arrested, he was finally locked up. He was convicted for breaking the curfew and lost an appeal all the way at the Supreme Court. He was put in solitary confinement and then shipped out to Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho, where he stayed until 1944 when he got a job in Chicago. He left Chicago almost immediately and arrived in Denver.
Today, the names that come to mind of people who fought the injustice of Japanese American internment are Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu, two other men who fought imprisonment all the way to the Supreme Court.
Both those men had their convictions overturned in the 1980s, but Yasui died in 1986 while awaiting a decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which subsequently dismissed the appeal after Yasui’s death. Both Hirabayashi, who moved to Canada in 1959 and lived there until his death in 2012, and Korematsu, who passed away in 2005 after becoming the “face” of the three men, were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given by the United States.
Yasui has not received the honor, and he is almost forgotten as a voice against the injustice of internment. So, his daughter, Holly, is now making a documentary and a theatrical script about her father that’s largely funded by the Mile High JACL (of which I’m a board member).
And a Min Yasui Tribute Committee (with which I’m involved), which includes Holly and other family members as well as friends across the country, has helped to nominate Yasui, via Congressmembers including Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono and California Representative Mike Honda, for a Presidential Medal of Freedom, so that Yasui can complete the triangle of honorees alongside Hirabayashi and Korematsu.
That would give Colorado one more reason to celebrate this most significant of Asian American heroes, and Denver one more reason to remember a giant who walked and worked amongst us for decades, quietly and without fanfare. He deserves the fanfare now.
Gil Asakawa is a P.C. Editorial Board member and former P.C. Board Chair. He is AARP’s AAPI Marketing Communications Consultant, and he blogs at www.nikkeiview.com. A new revised edition of his book, “Being Japanese American,” will be publish in June by Stone Bridge Press.