Daniel Inouye: Civil Rights Warrior, Senate Giant

I want to start off this blog post by extending my condolences to the victims of the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut and all of their friends and family. This was a truly horrific event that makes us all yearn for a better future. The main point of my blog post is about a Senator who passed away recently and who, I would argue, deserves to be called a hero: Daniel Inouye. You may have heard that Robert Bork also passed away recently. Seeing as it is almost Christmas and seeing as Bork does not seem to be garnering the national tribute that bigots like Jerry Falwell and Robert Byrd got, I see no need to devote a lot of space on this blog to criticizing him. In May, I wrote a blog post about Bork called “Romney’s Jeremiah Wright” describing Bork’s racism, homophobia, and toxic influence on the Republican Party. There is nothing in there that I regret saying about Bork and nothing that is not still true. I will never apologize for speaking the truth. That is all I am going to say about Bork in this blog post.

As for Daniel Inouye, I want to explain why I consider him to be a hero and fit to be ranked among the greatest U.S. Senators, such as Charles Sumner, Hubert Humphrey, and others. And in order to do this, I think one should first look at the specific position he occupied in the U.S. Senate. For the last two and a half years before he went to join Sumner and Humphrey debating politics in Heaven, Inouye was the President Pro Tempore. This is a position created relatively recently which traditionally goes to the highest ranking Senator from the majority party. While most Americans have not heard of this position, the Senator occupying it is third in line to the presidency behind the president, the vice president, and the Speaker of the House. The other three Senators to have occupied this position have been, from most to least recent, Robert Byrd, Ted Stevens, and Strom Thurmond. Two of these men were blatant racists, one spent time in the KKK, and all three were very homophobic. Hence, it was becoming almost expected that the President Pro Tempore would be a thoroughly disgraceful individual. In the Summer of 2010, Robert Byrd died. Democrats fell over themselves offering praises to Byrd and implausibly claiming he had repented of his old racism, while firing a black federal employee a couple months later who actually had repented of her racism. What few people noticed was that Daniel Inouye had brought a sense of honor and decency to the position of President Pro Tempore.

Inouye was born in 1924 in what was then the Hawaii Territory to Japanese American parents, one of whom was a first generation immigrant, the other the child of immigrants. He was born in a time when Americans were becoming increasingly paranoid about immigration. Whereas immigrants in the mid 1800s had come mostly from Northern and Western Europe, newer waves of immigrants often came from countries that many Americans considered to be more alien. Many of these immigrants were Eastern Europe/Jewish and Asian. The same year that Inouye was born, Congress passed legislation imposing strict quotas to limit immigration. Japanese immigrants were essentially banned from coming to the United States. While Calvin Coolidge was unhappy with the clause banning Japanese immigrants, he supported the bill as a whole and signed it. When World War II broke out, the seventeen-year old Inouye was saved from internment only by the fact that Hawaii immediately became subject to military government. Mainland Japanese Americans, meanwhile, were hauled off into internment camps. In 1942, Inouye volunteered for the U.S. Army and served until 1945. That year, he fought valiantly in a battle in Italy against Germans that would change his life forever. During the battle, Inouye lost his right arm. He was one of the most inspirational figures to disabled people everywhere. Few people, disabled or not disabled, ever achieved more than he did. In 1959, he was elected to Congress, and became a Senator in 1963. He was the first Japanese American Representative, the first Japanese American Senator, and the highest-ranking Asian American ever to serve in the U.S. government. In the 1980s, he would help lead the successful fight to pass legislation giving reparations to the survivors of Japanese American internment. Yet it would be a colossal mistake to think that Inouye was only interested in the rights and well being of Japanese Americans. Few Senators could rival him when it came to showing support for all oppressed people. The National Congress of American Indians said of Inouye, “As a member and chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs he championed the rights of Native peoples, and we will always remember him for holding the line on numerous issues critical to cultural protection and tribal sovereignty.” He opposed racial segregation, voted for civil rights legislation, and spoke in his 1968 Democratic National Convention keynote speech of the need to achieve equality for African Americans. In the same decade that he fought to secure reparations for victims of internment, he also cosponsored legislation to oppose South Africa’s policy of apartheid. He favored affirmative action. He defended the existence of a Jewish state.

From 1981 to 2012, Inouye built up a phenomenal gay rights record. In 1981, he joined with a group of other courageous Senators and Representatives to cosponsor gay rights legislation. For comparison, three years later, Al Gore, who was twenty-four years younger than Inouye, said he was against homosexuality, opposed such a bill, and would not take money from gay rights groups. In 1993, Inouye was one of thirty-three Senators to vote to remove “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” from the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1994. He wanted gays and lesbians to be able to serve openly in the military. He supported the effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” in 2010. When it was finally repealed, he stated, “Finally, all brave men and women who want to put on the uniform of our great nation and serve in the armed services may do so without having to hide who they are. My only regret is that nearly 13,000 men and women were expelled from the military during the 17 years that this discriminatory policy was in place,”

He cosponsored the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. He voted against the Defense of Marriage Act. When President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage in 2012, Inouye wrote, “I am very pleased that the President affirmed his support for marriage equality.  I think everyone who wishes to enter into marriage and start a life together should be allowed to do so, regardless of sexual orientation.   How can we call ourselves the land of the free, if we do not permit people who love one another to get married? I look forward to working with the President to ensure his position on marriage equality becomes law in this country.”

He also left a positive mark on issues other than civil rights. He voted against the Iraq War in 2002. In 2006, when many Republicans and sadly some Democrats tried to glean votes for their reelection bids by trying to constitutionally ban flag burning, Inouye forcefully spoke out against such violations of free speech.

Like Bella Abzug, a Congresswoman that I consider to be a personal hero and who is also now debating politics with Humphrey and Sumner, Inouye triumphed over adversity and broke down barriers for other Japanese Americans the way Abzug broke down barriers for other women. But like Abzug, he understood that it was also important to fight for the rights of other oppressed groups of people. And he acted forcefully on this understanding. When President Abraham Lincoln was shot, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” The same should be said of Daniel Inouye.

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