Peggy Nagae hoped her decades of work righting wrongs from decades ago will inspire the next generation to fight for a brighter future.
Nagae shared her experience as an attorney representing civil rights activist Minoru Yasui in his case against the federal government during a series of discussions Wednesday, Feb. 13, with Aragon High School students.
Nagae said she is inspired to tell the story of Yasui, who fought the unconstitutionality of laws targeting Japanese-Americans during World War II, to raise awareness between the parallels of yesterday and today.
“These times are not that dissimilar to those,” said Nagae, who encouraged students to be wary of rash government action during war times or periods of concern over national security.
Most notably, Nagae said threads of the federal government’s decision to intern Japanese-Americans can be seen in the action taken against members of the Muslim community in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Or more recently, President Donald Trump’s attempt to limit immigration into the country, while raising fears about national security.
Nagae’s work is detailed in “Never Give Up: Minoru Yasui and the fight for justice,” a documentary crafted by Yasui’s daughter. Portions of the film were shared with students, who shared their admiration of the activist.
“It took a lot of bravery and courage to do that and stand up for what he believed in,” said Paris Auerweck, a junior at the school.
Nyela Walter, also a junior at the school, expressed her surprise over ways the case against Yasui was cited as recent precedent to justify other forms of targeting different cultures and communities.
In 1942, Yasui volunteered to be arrested in Oregon for violating the curfew imposed on Japanese-Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, with an intent of settling the civil rights fight in court.
He lost his first case, and faced a sentence of one year in prison and a $5,000 fine. During his imprisonment, Yasui was held at the Japanese-American internment staging center established in Minidoka, Idaho. Following a series of appeals, his case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which affirmed his arrest. He returned to internment, prior to his release in 1944.
Not to be defeated, Yasui started work as a civil rights attorney and received recognition for his work in favor of communities whose rights were violated or underrepresented.
More than three decades after his arrest, Yasui directed his focus working in favor of redress for Japanese-Americans who were interned or held without justification — at which point Nagae joined his legal battle as a fledgling attorney.
When she started the pro bono work alongside Yasui, Nagae said she expected the case to only last a few months before it was transferred to a different legal team.
“We are still fighting this case. For free,” said Nagae, nearly four years after the legal battle started, to a chorus of laughs from the audience.
The work was not in vain though, as Nagae was part of the legal team which ultimately won a signed apology and financial compensation for Japanese-Americans from the government under former President Ronald Reagan. Yasui was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 by former President Barack Obama. The case against him was also overturned.
For her part, Nagae said she hoped her work and Yasui’s story would inspire students to fight against any injustice they encounter.
“If someone is being demeaned, yourself or someone else, you can speak up,” she said.
History teacher Will Colglazier, who invited Nagae to speak, said he believed the guest’s account would likely resonate in a way which is impossible to capture with lessons from a history book.
“They might not remember what I taught them yesterday, but hopefully they will remember this,” he said.
For her part, Nagae said is optimistic her experience will leave an impression on the students.
“You are my hope for the next generation,” she said to students. “So please, go forth and do good work.”
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