As a high school student in San Jose in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I used to see Norman Mineta on occasion in San Jose’s Japantown. Once at Fukuda Barber in Japantown, Mineta was on the barber chair. After he left, barbers Takeo and Atsuo Fukuda asked me if I knew who he was. I didn’t, and Takeo told me that he was Norman Mineta, vice mayor of San Jose. Since that day, I recognized Mineta whenever I saw him in Japantown, in the San Jose Mercury News, and on television. In 1971, Mineta became mayor of San Jose, and in 1974, he ran successfully for the U.S. House of Representatives. He was reelected ten more times. Mineta also served as President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce from July 2000 to January 2001 and President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Transportation from January 2001 to August 2006. Never did I imagine that our paths would cross professionally through my work at SPICE. From 2017, SPICE curriculum designer Rylan Sekiguchi assumed the responsibility of authoring lesson plans for a project called “What Does It Mean to Be an American?”—a free web-based curriculum toolkit inspired by Mineta’s life and career.
As a 10-year-old Japanese American boy in 1942, Norman Mineta was powerless when his country imprisoned him and his family in a fit of wartime hysteria. But nearly 60 years later, he sat at the highest levels of government as the United States reeled from 9/11 and began experiencing a new hysteria. In times of crisis like these, how has the institution of civil liberties been affected by individuals like Mineta whose voices guide government policy, and how have those changes impacted the lives of Americans? This was the central question that Mineta and Sekiguchi focused their comments on during their National Council of History Education session, “Civil Liberties in Times of Crisis,” on March 16, 2019.
The 30 teachers in attendance were first offered a preview by Sekiguchi of the soon-to-be released “What Does It Mean to Be an American?” The lesson plans, explained Sekiguchi, consist of six independent learning modules that examine a key theme from Secretary Norman Mineta’s life and career: immigration, civil liberties and equity, civic engagement, justice and reconciliation, leadership, and U.S.–Japan relations. The lessons were developed in consultation with Mineta and the Mineta Legacy Project team, including Dianne Fukami and Debra Nakatomi, who were also in attendance. Fukami and Nakatomi are the producers of the documentary film, Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story.
Following the curriculum preview, Mineta reflected upon his life and highlighted the striking parallels between the hysteria following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the hysteria following 9/11. His memories of the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor seemed to be seared in the back of his mind as he spoke, as he vividly recalled seeing his father cry for the first time and wondering where his neighbor of Japanese descent had suddenly been taken, and by whom. (He later learned it was the FBI.) A short time later, Mineta and his family were also evicted from their home in San Jose, California and incarcerated in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, as part of what is often called the mass internment of Japanese Americans.
Mineta also shared his memories of the morning of 9/11—being informed as Secretary of Transportation of the first plane hitting the twin towers, watching the live broadcast as the second plane hit, and then being called to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, a bunker-like underground structure that lies below the White House. He recalled how he had asked one of his chiefs to draw up the new flight security guidelines that would govern aviation henceforth, and the first bullet point was “No racial profiling will be used.” He also vividly recalled how President George W. Bush, in the aftermath of 9/11, firmly declared that the United States would not let what happened to Norm and his family (following the Pearl Harbor attack) happen again. “You could’ve knocked me off my chair with a feather!” Mineta reflected.
Following the session, comments from teachers underscored the success of the session. “A number of participants said they’d never seen anything like our lessons before. One teacher told us that even though she expected our session would be her conference highlight, she was still overwhelmed!” reflected Sekiguchi. “That was so heartening to hear. I hope everyone in our session felt that way. Even more than that, I hope they feel inspired to educate the next generation about the importance of civil liberties and share these lessons from Secretary Mineta’s life.” Deborah Rowland was among the teachers who attended the conference. She tweeted, “Such a privilege to visit with this incredible man today. Norman Mineta, former Secretary of Transportation, former Secretary of Commerce, former Congressman, former childhood detainee of Executive Order 9066, always an American.”
The documentary film Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story will receive a national PBS airing on May 20. Fukami and Nakatomi hope that the film and lesson plans become widely used in U.S. schools and carry on the legacy of Norman Mineta. They noted, “They are important tools to help young students grapple with the divisiveness in U.S. society today and to underscore the critical importance of considering civil liberties-related issues in U.S. history as well as today.”
I had the privilege of attending several screenings of the film. At the San Jose screening, it was gratifying to listen to tributes to Mineta from people who represent San Jose’s diverse communities, and it was especially moving to witness them and numerous Japanese Americans in attendance give a standing ovation to Mineta following the screening. An old family friend in attendance used to also frequent Fukuda Barber and we boasted about how our barber used to also cut the hair of Norman Mineta.