My family joined Japanese-Americans and other Americans at a ceremony in Denver marking the anniversary of the day President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. That February 19, 1942 order authorized the exclusion of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast and led to the incarceration of men, women and children in camps like Colorado’s Amache.
My daughter got extra credit from her high school Japanese teacher. And we all learned a lot.
More than 2,000 people of Japanese ancestry, some of them children, who were living in Peru and other Latin American countries were rounded up at the behest of the United States after Pearl Harbor. They were sent to camps in Texas. Roosevelt apparently wanted to try to exchange them for American civilians who had been imprisoned in Japan. The exchange never happened. A Japanese-Peruvian who spoke at the ceremony described making his way to Colorado from Texas as a teen after the war. He has lived in Denver ever since.
A lawyer named Peggy Nagae was the main speaker at the ceremony. She told us about one of her clients, Minoru Yasui, who was a young lawyer in Oregon when wartime hysteria was fueling racism. In an act of civil disobedience that presaged 1960s civil rights activism, Yasui went out after a curfew that had been imposed on Americans of Japanese descent and demanded to be arrested.
Nagae quoted Yasui as saying later: “This is the United States of America, founded in liberty, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. As an American citizen, as a lawyer, I felt that we owed at least the obligation as a citizen to tell our government they are wrong! That is the sacred duty of every citizen, because what is done to the least of us can be done to all of us.”
Yasui fought his conviction for breaking curfew all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled against him -- in part, it was later discovered, because US government lawyers hid evidence.
The Executive Order 9066 ceremony was held in the building that houses the Colorado state archives, which is just across the street from the state Supreme Court building named for Ralph Carr. As governor of Colorado during World War II, Carr denounced the incarceration of American citizens of Japanese descent, saying no one should be deprived of basic rights based only on racial background. Carr’s stance destroyed his political career.
I’d heard about Carr before, but never about the Japanese Latin Americans or about Yasui.
After spending most of the war incarcerated Yasui settled in Denver, where he was a founding member of the city’s chapter of the Urban League and helped found the Latin American Research and Service Agency and Denver Native Americans United. In addition to fighting for “the least of us,” he kept battling his own case. With Nagae as his attorney, judges in the 1980s finally vacated Yasui’s conviction for curfew breaking.
Nagae must have absorbed her client’s faith in the Constitution. She has filed amicus briefs in current cases challenging the Trump administration’s travel bans.
The past is not past. In addition to living in the shadow of racism and prejudice, we live with the light of the example of people like Yasui. I’m sure there were many in the archives audience who knew a lot about him. Maybe some did not think his story needed telling again. As someone who heard it for the first time that day, I don’t think it can be repeated enough.