WASHINGTON — Civil rights leader Minoru Yasui posthumously received a Presidential Medal of Freedom during a White House ceremony on Tuesday.
President Obama said of the 17 recipients, “Today, we celebrate some extraordinary people — innovators, artists, and leaders — who contribute to America’s strength as a nation. And we offer them our highest civilian honor — the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Recipients included the late Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Barbara Streisand, Steven Spielberg, the late Shirley Chisholm, Itzhak Perlman, Gloria Estefan, Stephen Sondheim, Rep. Barbara Mikulski and James Taylor.
Yasui, along with past Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi, was one of the few Nisei to challenge the constitutionality of the government’s treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
“On a Saturday night in March of 1942, Minoru Yasui left his law office to walk around Portland, Ore.,” Obama said. “It was a seemingly ordinary act that defied the discriminatory military curfew imposed on Japanese Americans during World War II. Min took his case to the Supreme Court and lost, a decision he fought for the rest of his life.
“Yet despite what Japanese Americans endured — suspicion, hostility, forced removal, internment — Min never stopped believing in the promise of his country. He never stopped fighting for equality and justice for all. ‘We believe in the greatness and the great ideals of this country,’ he once said. ‘We think there is a future for all humanity in the United States of America.’
“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 sacrifice.”
The citation read, “From the fruit farms of Oregon to the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court, Minoru Yasui devoted his life to fighting for basic human rights and the fair and equal treatment of every American. In challenging the military curfew placed on Japanese Americans during World War II, he brought critical attention to the issue, and paved the way for all Americans to stand as full and equal citizens.
“Minoru Yasui’s example endures as a reminder of the power of one voice echoing for justice.”
Yasui, who died in 1986 at the age of 70, was represented by one of his daughtes, Laurie Yasui, 64, of Kansas City.
In an interview with the Associated Press prior to the ceremony, she said, “He would have been very proud to receive this. I think it would have said volumes to him about the state of the union today that he is being recognized by the government that he fought so hard to defend.”
At the same time, her father would have been “up on his soapbox, stomping his feet and shaking his fist” in response to governors and other politicians calling for Syrian refugees to be kept out of their states, in particular Roanoke, Va. Mayor David Bowers, who cited the internment of Japanese Americans as a positive example to follow.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Obama said, “We are just reminded when we see these individuals here on the stage what an incredible tapestry this country is. And what a great blessing to be in a nation where individuals as diverse, from as wildly different backgrounds, can help to shape our dreams, how we live together, help define justice and freedom and love. They represent what’s best in us, and we are very, very proud to be able to celebrate them here today.”