© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

On A List Of Big Names, Little-Known Activist Earns His Posthumous Spotlight


Steven Spielberg, Willie Mays, Shirley Chisholm, Itzhak Perlman - these are just some of the people who will be receiving Presidential Medals of Freedom on Tuesday. Not all the names on the list are well-known but that is going to change, especially for Minoru Yasui.

ROBIN YASUI: That legacy is well-known in the legal annals. It's well-known among Japanese-Americans. And as people hear this name, see these awards, I want them to understand - why did this man deserve this honor?

MARTIN: That's Robin Yasui. She is the niece of Minoru Yasui, also known as Min. He was an attorney and a civil rights leader who fought the U.S. government's discriminatory policies toward Japanese-Americans during World War II, policies that included everything from curfews to internment.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, our West Coast became a potential combat zone.

MARTIN: Hundreds of thousands of Americans of Japanese descent were forcibly relocated away from their homes near military targets on the coast and into internment camps toward the interior of the American West.


MINORU YASUI: If you begin to erode the liberties and freedom and rights of the individual, then you are indeed jeopardizing the safety of our whole nation. That was my position.

MARTIN: And that's the voice of Minoru Yasui from a television documentary produced by Salt Lake City's KUTV. As a young, recent graduate of law school in 1942, Yasui turned to civil disobedience.

R. YASUI: So he decided to make a test case of himself, got himself arrested by blatantly violating the curfew so he could take it to court and challenge this order.

MARTIN: Ultimately, the case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Yasui lost. Despite that, he continued to work on civil rights cases throughout his life on behalf of Native Americans, Latin Americans, wherever he found injustice. Minoru Yasui died in 1986, too soon to witness a victory he had sought for decades when the U.S. granted reparations to interned Japanese-American families in 1988. Again, his niece, Robin Yasui.

R. YASUI: The farther we go from Min's days, the harder it is to sometimes remember those hard-fought battles that brought us to today. And the problems today of racial profiling, of discrimination - these are still active and important issues today. We need our next generation to know that and to move forward with that same type of passionate energy that Min had.

MARTIN: Special thanks to Andrea Dukakis and Stephanie Wolf of Colorado Public Radio for their help with this story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.