2003 Honoree - Dale Minami

[Note: The following biography was prepared and presented at the 2003 gala by Board Member and KRON TV News Anchor Emerald Yeh.]

I saved our next honoree for last, because in researching him, I Yahoo and Google-searched him. I didn't think I'd come out of it alive. Or at least finish reading up on him in time for tonight's event.

Dale Minami

There are some 400 pages or 4000 links on Dale Minami, all reflecting his commitment and passion for social justice and his boundless public speaking and community activities on behalf of the disenfranchised. Anyone who knows Dale isn't surprised by this. So, since many of you here tonight are already familiar with Dale's endless good deeds and accomplishments, I will be spare in those details and will focus instead on the interior of this man and what in his heart impels him to engage in the seemingly endless battles for equity with such unabating energy and intensity.

Our first three honorees came to America… struggled in this country and made it. America was their passport to opportunity and unimagined success.

Dale's case is different. He was born in this great country where the Constitution proclaims that everyone is created equal.

But this American-born citizen would grow up knowing that his parents, also U.S. born-citizens, were imprisoned and stripped of their honor and possessions by their own government and viewed as enemies by their own fellow citizens.

Dale Minami didn't know it at the time, but he would grow to fill some mighty shoes in the pursuit of liberty and justice for all.

The Gardena-variety boy did have the trappings of an all-American upbringing--- baseball, Boy Scouts, Christmas.

Before he was born though, his parents, grandparents and his older brother were sent to the Santa Anita Assembly Center in California where they lived in horse stalls, then transferred to an incarceration camp in Rohwer, Arkansas. They were among the more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans interned during World War II because in the eyes of our government, their Japanese ancestry made them a national security risk.

While Dale's parents didn't talk about it, the experience seared their souls deeply, but they swallowed the shame and anger and instead, made sure they raised their sons to not treat people differently just because of skin color.

Growing up, Dale remembers images of the Civil Rights struggle in the South where dogs and water were unleashed on blacks, simply because they wanted the right to sit down in a restaurant as equals with any other customer.

It was at the University of Southern California where his social conscience was truly sparked. The Watts Riots broke out in 1965, six days of civil unrest that left more than 30 people dead and more than a thousand injured. Dale watched it all from the freeway. The sight of the fiery riots spurred him to find out why there was so much rage.

He immersed himself in books by Malcolm X and read other black classics such as Invisible Man and Native Son.

At that time, he decided he wanted to pursue a career path in social justice and almost went into social psychology. He ended up in law school instead because his father suggested it would be more practical. Little did his father know where that vocational turn would lead his son.

Next stop for Dale was Boalt School of Law at UC Berkeley---the ground zero of the rebellious 60's. Anti-war protests, free speech demonstration, and the exploding counterculture all collided in one place at one time and that was Berkeley in 1968.

Coming out of law school, he was recruited by future judge Ken Kawaichi to help start the Asian Law Caucus in 1972. Dale and others saw that cultural and economic constraints kept many Asians from seeking legal services. In addition to language barriers and affordability issues, Asians had yet to learn to use law as a tool to improve their lives. What the founders of the Asian Law Caucus wanted to do was provide legal access and use impact litigation to make changes and empower Asians in America, so that they could learn to fight for their own rights on a political as well as legal basis.

Within two months of its founding, the Asian Law Caucus got its first important case. It sued to end the police practice in San Francisco of rounding up Chinese youths from Chinatown without probable cause to photograph and fingerprint them to build a gang dossier.

The Caucus took on a major insurance company in a class-action suit to end employment discrimination against Filipinos in the company.

It fought for the establishment of an Asian American Studies program at Washington State University where Asians made up the largest minority group on campus, but with no Asian Studies program while there were African American, Hispanic American and Native American Studies programs.

Today the Asian Law Caucus is known as the country's oldest legal and civil rights organization serving low-income Asian Pacific Americans.

After a few years at the Caucus, Dale left to start a private practice that was to become Minami, Lew & Tamaki, but he continued to try civil rights cases on a pro bono basis. As Dale describes it, he went from non-profit public interest law to non-profit private practice.

The first year, his office made $6000, the second year $8000, the third year, back to $6000. How are we going to make it, he wondered. In taking on the Washington State University case, his pay for his time on the case ended up being $10 an hour.

Then came the case of a lifetime. Korematsu vs. United States, where Dale was the lead attorney in a case that re-opened a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling and overturned a 40-year-old conviction against Fred Korematsu for his refusal to obey government orders to be incarcerated in an internment camp.

It was a case about one man, but represented one of the greatest injustices of American history . As Dale said…"We were on a mission to undo a great wrong."

Dale and his team of lawyers argued successfully that the government's case against Korematsu was based on false, misleading, and racially biased information.

The case resonated powerfully with Dale because of his family's experience.

Even with the redress movement already underway, many Japanese-Americans, including Dale's parents, hardly talked about their imprisonment, so shamed were they by one of the worst indignities one could suffer--- to be removed from your home and denied your rights in what courts would later deem a clearly racist act. Once the Korematsu case started, though,

Dale's parents began to talk. Out poured a flood of emotions--- tears, anger, bitterness and even humor. "It unlocked their memories," he said. "It unlocked their tongues."

Dale Minami got the lion's share of attention and credit in the Korematsu case because he was the lead attorney, but he credits his incredible team of lawyers, including then-Asian Law Caucus head Don Tamaki, now his law partner. Don saw that media strategy was as critical as legal strategy… and was instrumental in getting coverage of the case. He felt that legal cases come and go, but if you win in the court of public opinion and thereby influence opinions and perceptions, that's the ultimate change.

Speaking of changing public perceptions, this brings us to Dale Minami's next landmark move-- posing for an Asian male pin-up calendar. In 1991, Dale Minami became known in our circles as Mr. May and June.

We certainly saw him in a new light. How the calendar came about was this.

A photographer-publisher decided to do this calendar as a way of dispelling the stereotype of the Asian male as unattractive and asexual. That stereotype had been reinforced over the years by the way Asian males were portrayed in mainstream American media. Dale was told the calendar would be a fundraiser for Asian student groups and would have limited distribution. It would show Asian males in their workplace and then in a more recreational pose that would show a bit of physique.

Dale showed up for the photo shoot with his lawyer's suit for the workplace shot and a basketball jersey and shorts for the other pose. Well, one thing led to another and before you knew it an oil-ist was called in to give Dale a little extra sheen. The rest is history. It created quite a stir, to say the least, but Dale says he has no regrets. It accomplished the goal. It showed the world that Asian males can be hunks too.

But perhaps the real breakthrough was 10 years later in that ultimate American mainstream media vehicle, People Magazine, where Dale was named one of the 50 Most Eligible Bachelors in the country. He CLAIMS that notoriety did not bring an onslaught of dates.

Of course, living up to that calendar and the People magazine title is no piece of cake, condemning Dale to a lifelong regimen of workouts.

But Dale still does his heavy lifting in the arena where he fights for social equity for all.

He speaks at countless forums, works with various organizations to empower the Asian Pacific American community, and oversees [remind me to ask Dale at the dinner what phrase we should use] a law firm that litigates against employment and other forms of discrimination as well as on family law, immigration, criminal and business cases. He has received awards many times over, including the Thurgood Marshall Award this past summer.

The prestigious award, given to only 10 recipients so far, recognized Dale for his long-term contributions to the advancement of civil rights, civil liberties and human rights in America.

In giving Dale this honor, the chair of the award committee said: "His lifelong efforts on behalf of equality are as critical today as they were to Japanese Americans after World War II. He is a role model for all Americans and has lived the true calling of a lawyer, to seek justice where it has not prevailed."

When I asked Dale to distill in a sentence what drives him in all he does, taking up one cause after another, year in and year out, and what keeps him going when others might have called it quits or at least scaled back by now, he had a simple answer.

"The U.S. Constitution," he said. "I took to heart what it said about all people being created equal, to be treated with equal dignity and respect. When I realized in law school that the rhetoric was not reality, I felt angry, deceived and bamboozled. I played by the rules and to find that others didn't was upsetting to me. What happened to my parents and what's happening to people of color is what drives me."

While Dale has long ago attained hero status in our community, he says he would like people to know another side of him…the part that likes to eat … and have a good time … and drink a little wine now and then. He says it's important to balance your life, no matter how strong your zeal to change the world.

Ladies and Gentlemen, our final honoree tonight, Dale Minami - as Ben Fong-Torres put it: A man who passed the bar, became a star…and did it his way.

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