An idea flourished in the minds of two JACL National Youth Council members as they marched with thousands to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma.
What if African-Americans could receive reparations? And more important, what if the Japanese American community could provide the necessary support to help achieve this?
The idea wasn’t unrealistic or novel. In fact, the JACL had passed a resolution calling for reparations for the internment of Japanese Americans 45 years earlier.
The JACL’s HR 442 resolution (symbolically named after the infamous 442 Regimental Combat Team) launched a massive campaign that resulted in the formation of a commission to study wartime relocation and internment of civilians. The campaign ultimately led to the signing of the Civil Liberties Act, which granted monetary compensation and a formal apology to the victims of the World War II internment. Even more, the bill acknowledged the grave injustice and inhumanity that was forced on an innocent population of people.
JACL’s two youth council members, Ryan Kuramitsu (MDC) and Kota Mizutani (EDC), returned from Selma to share their thoughts with the National Youth Council, changed by the sight of compelling solidarity.
At the time, the racial landscape was tumultuous in the United States. Each week seemed to present another horrific event — from Michael Brown and Eric Garner to Freddie Gray and Walter Scott. Disagreements turned into outrage, and protests became violent. The media’s coverage only seemed to intensify emotions
In the midst of national outcry and escalating social issues, the National Youth Council learned of a bill called HR 40. The bill called for the formation of a commission to study reparations proposals for African-Americans. The number of the bill, “40” was chosen to represent the 40 acres and a mule that the United States initially promised to freed slaves. The promise was unfulfilled, and the devastation of slavery lived on in the African-American community.
John Conyers, a representative of the Detroit area and current longest-serving member of Congress, proposed HR 40 in 1989 and continued to bring it to the floor every year thereafter.
Unfortunately, the bill wasn’t able to garner enough critical mass from the black community and allies to move forward. And each year, politicians moved away from the aging bill to focus on new problems.
The JACL is known for standing up in the face of adversity. It was the first national civil rights organization to publicly and actively support marriage equality in 1994. It was also one of the first organizations to strongly and vocally oppose racial profiling of Arab and Muslim Americans after Sept. 11.
The youth council understood the enormity of help the JACL could provide by becoming the first AAPI organization to support HR 40. It also understood the need to take a formal stance against the decades of racist policies and deliberate injustices that had systematically wronged another racial population, African-Americans.
The Black Lives Matter movement pushed conversations of structural racism and white supremacy back into the national spotlight. Police reform was not the answer. The U.S. was dealing with a much deeper problem requiring brisk solidarity and support.
The plan was to present a resolution for HR 40 at the 46th national JACL Convention in Las Vegas. If the resolution succeeded, the bill would move one step closer to gaining ground on Capitol Hill.
After creating talking points and presenting PowerPoint presentations at chapter and district meetings, the youth headed to Las Vegas, prepared to make history
When the day finally arrived, the youth council met in the hallway outside the Monte Carlo ballroom to discuss final strategies. A head popped out of a doorway and approached them. It was former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta.
He smiled at the group. “There is no better time for this resolution than now,” he said. “You will do great.”
The group entered the general session floor and spoke with fervent resolution. All comments at the “con” microphone were quickly disarmed by one of the youth council members speaking at the “pro” microphone. The debate lasted the entire time period allowed.
And then in a matter of minutes, the NYSC waited as the official voting tally was counted.
The resolutions speaker approached the microphone. “Resolution HR 40 has passed 75-1 with one abstention”
The youth council beamed. Just four months after returning from Selma, the group had grown an idea into an initiative, resolution and campaign. If they could do it, why not the United States?
Social movements begin with people joining together to acknowledge injustices and make change.
The JACL youth have done just that.