Wednesday, October 18, 2017
In October of last year events were building to a crescendo across the county, state and nation, in celebration of Minoru Yasui’s 100th birthday. These events were coming on the heels of the posthumous award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to his family in 2015 and the naming of March 28 as Minoru Yasui Day in perpetuity by the Oregon legislature.
Locally there were multiple partners from the library to museum, art center to the schools, non-profits to our faith community sharing creative ways to protect the civil liberties of all individuals while promoting justice. The nation seemed to be experiencing an era fraught with losses on each of these fronts. Activities were designed to engage as many generations as possible in learning of Minoru Yasui’s life work and inspiring them to continue to seek justice in conjunction with the least powerful and most disenfranchised; the faceless minority living in the shadows, fearful of raising their own voice.
I have long tried to keep Minoru’s story, along with the stories of other heroes in front of each new generation, something I have been passionate about since my college days when first exposed to the black power movement, civil disobedience and the devastating impact of the Vietnam War .I have shared Min’s story and the internment of the Japanese with many students of all ages, and in return heard many inspirational stories of those who dared to stand up against injustice and inhumanity.
One student said while Minoru Yasui reminded him of the unassuming comic book character Clark Kent, Superman of the Justice League, he was no comic book character. He was just a common, everyday person who believed that the Constitution had sound principles but men who were asked to implement these principles had trouble in carrying them out equitably. He pledged to no longer stand silent when he saw or heard of injustices that occurred around him each day because he was just like Minoru Yasui, a common everyday guy who could make a difference by raising his voice or taking a stand.
Minoru was born in Hood River in 1916 during a time when the Japanese immigrant population was just beginning to take root. He joined the growing family of Masuo and Shidzuo Yasui in the town of Hood River. This was a unique family, in that most of the Japanese community was comprised of hard working young adult males living in the rural areas of Dee, Parkdale, Odell, Pine Grove and Oak Grove. They lived the isolated lives of migrant laborers, toiling from sunrise to sunset, building railroads, clearing land and planting orchards for the predominantly white land owners.
There were few Japanese women or children in the mix but as time passed many of the young men began to see this valley as the land of opportunity. They dreamt of making this place their home, purchasing a plot of land, planting their own orchards and raising a family. With an influx of picture brides from 1910 through the early 1920s the dream seemed to be coming to fruition. Families were starting to grow amongst the fruit trees and Japanese American children were filling the seats in the country school houses. Families which had been isolated fearing “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down” began emerging from the shadows. Unfortunately, the roots of prejudice and discrimination ran deep in our valley, testing the Japanese beliefs that hard work, honesty and perseverance was the road to acceptance. The more visible they became, the more prejudice and discrimination raised its ugly head.
History has a way of repeating itself unless lessons learned are not relearned with each generation. I see the struggle of Mexican immigrants, their children and grandchildren facing the same trials and discriminatory practices in our community as the Japanese did almost a hundred years ago. I see the broader political climate playing on people’s fear through propaganda, plying neighbor against neighbor, championing prejudice, excusing inhumanity to man. Rhetoric has become poisonous rather than conciliatory, combative rather than peaceful.
There is much to be proud of in our community, our country and the world. I am proud of many of our faith organizations, businesses and non-profits who speak out for the rights of all humans, regardless of place of origin, socioeconomic status, faith or gender. Yet there is so much that must be done in overcoming our weaknesses and building stronger relationships with people from all walks of life. Now more than ever I see the need for other common folk, people like native son Minoru Yasui, to raise their voice in a civil manner and champion justice for all. It is in our silence that we provide fertile soil for injustice to grow.
I received a call from a young DACA college student this Saturday. She was seeking counsel on ways to raise her voice to advocate for Dreamers without being disrespectful. Recently she had walked the hallowed halls of Congress in Washington D.C. and spoken to representatives and senators. On one hand she is young and optimistic, on the other she is realistic while growing somewhat pessimistic with each passing day. She is a dreamer who believed that the American Dream was possible for her when President Obama signed the Dream Act. In her very young life she has already experienced how easily dreams can be crushed by the stroke of the very pen that gave her the right to dream.
The burden cannot lie on her shoulders alone. It must fall on the shoulders of everyone, especially those of us experiencing white privilege. While this young lady had the most to lose in coming out of the shadows of fear and publicly raising her voice, she still chose to marched for all dreamers on the Western Oregon University campus on Sunday. An everyday young woman with the courage to take extraordinary action in confusing and desperate times. I am humbled.
John E. Lewis said it most eloquently “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
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