US Senator Daniel Inouye speaks at the Japanese Cultural Center in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia, File)
Daniel Inouye, who as the son of Japanese immigrants petitioned his government for the right to serve in World War II and then earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for that service in the fight against fascism, became the highest-ranking Asian-American political figure in the United States.
Indeed, at the time of his death Monday at the age of 88, Inouye was third in line to the presidency.
But he never stopped confronting power on behalf of the rights of people of color, people with disabilities, women, lesbians and gays and political dissenters to equal justice and equal opportunity. A modest man who served in the Senate for more than fifty years, Inouye was not always accorded proper recognition of his historic advocacy on behalf of civil rights and civil liberties. But that is the error of those who underestimate Inouye, not of the senator. Indeed, as Vice President Joe Biden, who knew Inouye better than most in Washington, said after the senior senator’s death: “To his dying day, he fought for a new era of politics where all men and women are treated with equality.”
The American Civil Liberties Union got it right when the group hailed Inouye as “a champion of civil rights and civil liberties” who recognized that his own political successes required him to champion the rights of others. He did so when it mattered most. Inouye was the last sitting senator to have participated in the great debates over Southern segregation. And unlike other senior senators who have died in recent years after long tenures, he was on the right side of those debates.
The last sitting senator who joined the epic struggles to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, he led the fight for the Americans with Disabilities Act and was a key sponsor of the constitutional amendment to extend voting rights to 18-to-20-year-olds.
Inouye battled for reparations for Japanese-Americans who were interned in government compounds during World War II. And he was a passionate defender of the right to dissent. Indeed, the ACLU recalls, “Senator Inouye fought every iteration of proposed constitutional amendments to ban flag desecration—support that was particularly meaningful to the defense of free speech because of his military service.”
Inouye was one of the handful of senators who rejected the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act in the 1990s and he emerged as one of the earliest and most determined backers of marriage equality in the Senate, asking: “How can we call ourselves the land of the free, if we do not permit people who love one another to get married?”