‘Never Give Up!’ focuses on civil rights icon Minoru Yasui’s legacy

Minoru “Min” Yasui.
photo courtesy of “Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice”

“Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice,” by Holly Yasui and Will Doolittle, highlights the life of Minoru Yasui, who during World War II intentionally violated Executive Order 9066, the presidential orders that resulted in the incarceration of more than 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry in United States concentration camps.

Minoru Yasui, born in Hood River, Ore. in 1916 and the first Japanese American attorney in Oregon, states in the film that in 1942, he approached a police officer — while carrying his birth certificate to prove he was of Japanese ancestry — and asked the officer to arrest him.

Incarcerated at the assembly center in Portland and then Minidoka, Idaho concentration camp, he returned to Portland for his trial in November 1942. Found guilty by the District Court, he spent nine months in solitary confinement at the County Jail, awaiting his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which was later denied.

After the war, Yasui established a law practice in Denver, Colo., and until his death in 1986, he continued to fight for civil rights for all, for redress for former Nikkei inmates, and for the courts to rule that Executive Order 9066 was unconstitutional.

Poisoned Political Climate
Yasui’s daughter Holly stated in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly that she started the film in 2013 for the Minoru Yasui Tribute Project she co-founded with Peggy Nagae, Minoru Yasui’s attorney, to “get a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, for my dad.” He received the medal posthumously in 2015.

After Donald Trump was elected president, Holly Yasui explained that her father’s civil rights legacy and the message of the film were “more important than ever, given the poisoned political atmosphere generated by the new administration, with regard to immigration, bigotry, racism, and white supremacy.”

The film’s message is to “Never Give Up! Stand up and speak out,” the filmmaker asserted, pointing out her father’s words at the film’s end: “… when you suppress or oppress any group of people, you are really derogating the rights of all people … If they take away your rights they could take away mine so I will fight to preserve yours. If there is suffering or pain that is unfairly imposed upon anyone it’s my duty, it’s your duty to try to alleviate it because that’s the way in which we gain a better life for all of us.”

Holly Yasui. photo courtesy of “Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice”

Camp Not Fun for JAs
Growing up in Denver, Holly Yasui remembered her father’s stories about his arrest and about friends from “camp.” She thought it was like camping for fun on weekends. “But as I grew older, I learned that it was a very different kind of camp.”

Minoru Yasui was passionate in speaking about the wartime incarceration, Holly Yasui added. “In the 1950s my dad was trying to encourage people to file Evacuation Claims and … he made speeches all over the place.”

Her father‘s commitment to his work, especially redress, had a “profound impact upon me and upon others,” she recalled. “His speeches were riveting, and several people have told me that he paved the way for the success of the Redress Movement.”

Minoru Yasui aided the Redress Movement greatly in the 1980s by convincing redress opponent Sen. Pete Dominici (R-N.M.) to support reparations after the two men spoke at a New Mexico chapter Japanese American Citizens League event, Holly Yasui noted. “Dominici was so moved by my dad’s extraordinary patriotism … that he pledged to support the redress legislation. Dominici was a key vote in the U.S. Senate, and he also supported an entitlement to make redress payments.”

Tried to Dissuade Resisters
Minoru Yasui was criticized for trying, on behalf of the JACL, to persuade 85 Heart Mountain, Wyo. draft resisters and those in other camps to give up their resistance and report for military duty, his daughter conceded. “Viewers can see in the film that my dad was very sympathetic about the terrible situation in which the young draft resisters found themselves, but he felt they were misled and lacked legal counsel … and could not win a case in court, and unfortunately, he was right — all the draft resisters who did not recant ended up serving time in federal penitentiaries.”

According to Holly Yasui, when the JACL failed to support the Yasui, Hirabayashi and Korematsu (Nisei who defied the evacuation orders) court cases, her father “countered every argument” made by JACL’s National Secretary, Mike Masaoka, who had called her father “a self-styled martyr seeking headlines.”

Minoru Yasui, instead of “retreating into bitterness … prevailed with less-extreme members of the JACL leadership,” she wrote.

Two months after Masaoka broke up JACL’s legal defense support group in Minidoka, the National JACL filed an amicus brief on behalf of Yasui and Hirabayashi.

Her father and Masaoka had different opinions but were working toward the same goals — to improve the situation for Japanese Americans, Holly Yasui explained. “That is also why he and JACL supported the Nisei draft … I must admit that the amazing patriotism of (the Nisei soldiers) was a key factor in the broad support for redress … and its signing into law by a conservative president (Ronald Reagan).”

“To me, that’s an important lesson about collaboration – sometimes you have to work with people who have diametrically opposed opinions if you are truly committed to a common cause,” she commented. “That happened in the Redress Movement as well.”

“Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice” will screen Saturday, Feb. 24 at 6 p.m. at the seventh annual Films of Remembrance, presented by the Nichi Bei Foundation at New People Cinema in San Francisco’s Japantown. For more information, see page 3 or visit: www.nichibei.org/films-of-remembrance.

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