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His Work: Reflections


Dr. Robin Yasui


Minoru Yasui died in 1986 - so why are we still telling his story?

Because now, more than ever, the lessons of his life’s work, his legacy, have relevance and need retold. The players in the story may change but the principles for which Min fought throughout his life are the same.

Human rights, civil rights and social justice are not just for a few but for all who call this country their home.

Min never saw his battle against Japanese American injustice as just a Japanese American issue: rather, he attacked this as a constitutional issue, a breach of American law that affects all of us. He was moved to action by the simple belief that basic human rights are inalienable and deserve equal protection, regardless of race, creed or national origin.

This is what he fought for his whole life.

Min left the jail cell of Multnomah County for the barbed wire imprisonment of Minidoka Internment Camp, and when he was finally offered release from that hellish place, he delayed his departure. Instead, he stayed on, a little longer, to help other internees, other prisoners, organize their next steps as they faced release into a hostile America, and all the legal challenges that awaited them.

But finally, Min headed to Denver, to join up with other family members who had made a home for themselves there. But his past came with him and, in spite of receiving the highest score that year on the Colorado Bar exam, he was denied a license to practice law because of his past arrest and conviction. Once again Min fought, challenging the Colorado Supreme Court to obtain the right to practice law. Another battle fought, another battle won, and Min was ready to get into action.

The 1940s saw the birth of the civil rights movement and Min was in the thick of it. Various mayors and community leaders in Denver recognized the passion in this young lawyer and recruited him to serve on several advisory councils and committees, eventually taking him to the helm of the City’s Commission on Community Relations and Human Rights. Who better than a man who had been villainized, arrested and imprisoned for a human rights issue!

Min did some of his most important work on this Commission, focusing not only on civil rights but also on developing services for the aged, disabled, youth and ex-offenders. He worked for decades with the Denver Public Schools, pushing tirelessly for education equity and opportunity for minority students. He also dedicated himself to improving community relations between the police and communities of color.

All of this sounds frustratingly similar to the challenges we are facing today, doesn’t it?

Min’s work consumed his energy — and fed his energy. In his role as executive director of the Commission, he was a founding father and officer of the Urban League of Colorado, fighting for economic and social justice for the African American community. He also worked towards the establishment of the Latin American Research and Service Agency for Colorado and helped develop Denver Native Americans United. He was also chairman of the Board for Employ Ex, a program to help ex-offenders reintegrate into society. He worked in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League and served as an officer in Denver’s Interfaith Forum as well as the Mayor’s Task Force on Refugee Affairs. He also continued to play a pivotal role in the local and national Japanese American Citizens League, endlessly working towards redress of the constitutional injustice of WWII.

Do you see the theme of this man’s life? A singular focus crossing so many lines, so many barriers.

In addition to all those fancy titles, my cousins tell stories of him driving them to school, making a mean dish of sukiyaki, and hiking the beautiful Colorado mountains with his 3 beloved daughters. He also served as a Boy Scout Troop leader and published a Japanese American community newspaper out of the family’s basement with an old hand-cranked printer! His wife, True, once noted that Min served on as many as 75 committees and Boards while working for the City of Denver.

His work extended past Colorado as well: he also spent years on the US Commission on Civil Rights and as a member of the International Human Rights Association. Denver has honored Min’s devotion to the city with a legal Inn of Court and a government building in his name. There is also a bust of Min in downtown Denver and a community volunteer award that memorializes his legendary volunteerism during his 40 years of service to the City.

Min knew he was not a one-man show; rather, he was inspired and invigorated by other civil and human rights advocates throughout Denver’s diverse communities. Today we bandy about these concepts of equity and diversity and inclusivity. But those who fought for those ideals in the 1940s, 1950s, 60s and 70s did so risking life and limb. Min worked alongside these community heroes, fighting for access to good schools and safe neighborhoods, for decent paying jobs and opportunity.

The American dream — denied to some, deserved by all.

When the country erupted with fiery street riots in the 1960s, particularly after the assassination of MLK Jr, Min was side by side with community leaders in the streets of Denver helping to calm the crowds, negotiating between police and protesters, helping Denver avoid the explosion of violent protest that rocked so many other major American cities. Literally, a man who walked the walk.

Whether Black or American Indian or Muslim or Asian or Latino, we have all had the experience of being the ‘other.’ Sadly, we share a familiarity with each other’s scarred history. History forms us and informs us but it is nothing more than a dusty book on a shelf unless we act on the lessons learned and use it to mold a better future.

Sometimes, history asks us to take a stand that demands great personal sacrifice, forcing us into the spotlight of controversy, knowingly heading towards scorn and rejection. But it is the brave few who do so, despite the consequences. Min did just this.

Martin Luther King Jr said: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy." Min Yasui stood up in the 1940s for Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans. But he also stood up in the 1940s through the 1980s for the people of Colorado, the people of Denver, during times of challenge and controversy. We remember, on this wonderful Min Yasui Day, that these battles are not yet won and that we must never stop fighting the good fight. We stand on the shoulders of men and women like Min Yasui and we remember them.

But Min would be rolling his eyes if he watched us today, honoring his memory without action. He would admonish us to not just remember his contributions but to get out there ourselves and make change happen. Min did just that and this is why, 37 years after his death, we still talk about him. Author Ursula LeGuin said: “It doesn’t take a thousand men to open a door but it may to keep it open.”

So, we all have some work to do.

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