Seventy-six years ago, Minoru “Min” Yasui sat in a cell at the Multnomah County Jail in Oregon when he read a newspaper article detailing how Walter Pierce, the state’s former governor and U.S. congressman, called for Japanese immigrants in the United States to be sent to Japan. Ever the racist and xenophobe, Pierce wasn’t done. He even suggested revoking birthright citizenship for Americans of Japanese descent.
“The United States has done much for the Japanese but in turn they have abused privileges granted them and have tricked us,” Pierce was quoted as saying. He then claimed that Japanese Americans couldn’t be “Americanized” or “Christianized” and warned that “a contest looms to see whether the Pacific Coast will remain white or turn yellow.”
Min, a young University of Oregon-educated lawyer from Hood River, understood intimately what the hateful words of a powerful man like Pierce could sow. Min was being unjustly held in solitary confinement for a simple but powerful act of civil disobedience in reaction to government repression of Japanese Americans and immigrants in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. On March 28, 1942, he purposefully broke the curfew law that had been placed on all people of Japanese ancestry under Executive Order 9066 by walking up and down the streets of downtown Portland after 8 p.m.
Min rightly believed Executive Order 9066 — which was eventually used to authorize the forced relocation and incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese Americans — was unconstitutional, so he launched a legal challenge. Before he was sentenced for the curfew violation, he was removed from his home at gunpoint under the order. He was sent to the Portland Assembly Center, which usually held livestock, and then to the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho before and after his nine-month sentence at the Multnomah County Jail.
From his tiny jail cell, he wrote a letter to respond to Pierce’s hateful words, which was published in the Minidoka Irrigator, a newspaper published at the incarceration camp that Min would soon return to after serving his sentence in Oregon.
“Here again is the insinuation that among human races, there are inherent inferiorities and superior qualities of races, not individuals. (Pierce’s) concluding statement marks him for a race-hater, and as an un-American demagogue. The issue ought not to be whether the Pacific Coast should remain ‘white’ or even ‘yellow.’ The issue ought to be whether the Pacific Coast will remain American or degenerate into a land of ‘superior whites.’ I believe Pierce would be willing to destroy Americanism for sake of ‘white man’s superiority.’”
The letter was signed: “MIN YASUI, Multnomah County Jail, Portland, Oregon.”
This is just a brief glimpse of Min Yasui’s unwavering lifelong commitment to equal rights and justice in the face of shameful treatment inflicted upon him and more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent by the very individuals who swore to protect the Constitution.
Min took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, but the justices shamefully upheld his conviction. He went on to lead an illustrious career as an attorney and civil rights leader, and his conviction was later vacated. In 2015, Yasui was posthumously honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, becoming the only Oregonian to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor.
In his 1981 testimony to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Min wrote that,
“It seemed to me then, as it does to me now, that to allow our government to act on the basis of one’s ancestry to go unchallenged was to betray all that America and the United States had stood for and proclaimed to all the world, in 1776 and today, that ‘all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ I could not permit myself to stand idly by and allow this to be amended by adding ‘except in time of war, and if you are of Japanese ancestry.’”
The civil rights icon passed away in 1986, but his strength and determination must not be forgotten. We worked to help pass the law that created Minoru Yasui Day in Oregon, and we proudly retrace his bold and defiant steps through downtown Portland each year on March 28.
As we face a resurgence of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy proposals, it is inspiring to remember that, through acts of resistance both small and large, we can fight to create the country we wish to see. With “conviction of the righteousness of our stand,” as Min said in his 1981 testimony, we must defend the rights of all people.