WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Monday named 17 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, including the late Minoru Yasui (1916-1986).
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. The awards will be presented at the White House on Nov. 24.
President Obama said, “I look forward to presenting these 17 distinguished Americans with our nation’s highest civilian honor. From public servants who helped us meet defining challenges of our time to artists who expanded our imaginations, from leaders who have made our union more perfect to athletes who have inspired millions of fans, these men and women have enriched our lives and helped define our shared experience as Americans.”
Yasui was a civil and human rights leader known for his continuous defense of the ideals of democracy embodied in the Constitution. A graduate of the University of Oregon School of Law, he challenged the constitutionality of a military curfew order during World War II on the grounds of racial discrimination, and spent nine months in solitary confinement during the subsequent legal battle.
In 1943, the Supreme Court upheld the military curfew order. Yasui spent the rest of his life appealing his wartime conviction. At the time of his death, he had successfully convinced a trial court to vacate his arrest, and a case challenging the constitutionality of his conviction was pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Yasui also spent his life fighting for the human and civil rights of all people. From 1959 to 1983, he served on the Commission on Community Relations in Denver, where a building is named in his honor. He was also a leader in the Japanese American Citizens League and its campaign for redress.
He is the subject of a forthcoming documentary, “Never Give Up: Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice” (minoruyasuifilm.org).
In 2014, JACL passed a national resolution seeking a Presidential Medal of Freedom for Yasui and was among a number of organizations campaigning for this recognition.
Two other Nisei who challenged the government’s violation of Japanese Americans’ constitutional rights during the war have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom: Fred Korematsu (1919-2005) in 1998 from President Bill Clinton and Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012) in 2012, posthumously, from President Obama.
There is also support for the awarding of the medal to Mitsuye Endo (1920-2006), the plaintiff in another wartime Supreme Court case. The court ruled that the government could not continue to detain a loyal U.S. citizen, but did not rule on the constitutionality of the internment itself.
The other medal recipients announced this week are:
• Yogi Berra (posthumous), a professional baseball catcher, manager, and coach.
• Bonnie Carroll, a life-long public servant who has devoted her life to caring for the military and veterans.
• Shirley Chisholm (posthumous), the first African American woman elected to Congress and the first major-party African-American female candidate to make a bid for the U.S. presidency.
• Emilio Estefan, a visionary music producer, entrepreneur, author, and songwriter.
• Gloria Estefan, a singer, songwriter, actor, and entrepreneur who introduced Latin music to a global audience.
• Billy Frank Jr. (posthumous), a tireless advocate for Indian treaty rights and environmental stewardship.
• Lee Hamilton, a former congressman who has been one of the most influential voices on international relations and American national security.
• Katherine G. Johnson, a NASA mathematician whose computations have influenced every major space program from Mercury to the space shuttle.
• Willie Mays, a Baseball Hall of Fame inductee and one of the first African American players in Major League Baseball history.
• Barbara Mikulski, who has held elected office since 1971 and became the longest-serving female senator in 2011 and the longest-serving woman in Congress in 2012.
• Itzhak Perlman, a treasured conductor and sought-after violinist who has been an important voice on behalf of persons with disabilities.
• William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who has worked tirelessly to protect public health and combat global challenges like climate change.
• Stephen Sondheim, one of the country’s most influential theater composers and lyricists (“West Side Story,” “Into the Woods”), and a recipient of eight Grammy Awards and eight Tony Awards.
• Steven Spielberg, an influential film director (“Jurassic Park,” “Saving Private Ryan”), producer, philanthropist, and entrepreneur as well as the founder of the USC Shoah Foundation.
• Barbra Streisand, whose body of work includes extraordinary singing, acting, directing, producing, songwriting, and one of the few performers to receive an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony.
• James Taylor, a recording and touring artist for more than 40 years, who has set a precedent to which countless young musicians have aspired.