The Next Stage: Redress Astonishing Then, Unimaginable Now

August 10, 2018 • Columnists, Feature, Homepage Feature, In-depth, JACL, Politics, The Next Stage

George Toshio Johnston

On this day 30 years ago, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. It was an affirmation that U.S. citizens could successfully petition their government for a redress of grievances, as cited in the United States Constitution.

Receiving an apology from the federal government were Americans of Japanese ancestry who lived on the West Coast before WWII, for having been forced from their homes to places like horse track stables, then 10 concentration camps located in desolate parts of Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah. Included in the bill was a token $20,000 in compensation per surviving former “internee.”

Redress took years of effort to accomplish, and it could not have been done without vital assistance from Americans who were not of Japanese descent, yet believed in the fundamental tenets that are the bedrock of this nation: due process and equal treatment under the law for all.

During those years that preceded Aug. 10, 1988, there was not consensus within the Japanese American community about the utility of a Redress Movement, from those who lived through the humiliation and wanted to forget it, to community leaders who thought asking the government for compensation, not to mention an apology, was demeaning.

Fortunately, there were also those Americans of Japanese ancestry who realized that re-examining what happened — and why — was not just important, but necessary. Some were the children and grandchildren of those whose rights were abrogated. Some were individuals who lived through incarceration and were able to see through the post-traumatic stress and realize that something had to be done, quixotic as the task might have seemed to some. Some were Japanese Americans from Hawaii, who didn’t experience incarceration but later learned from their mainland comrades-in-arms of the injustices they and their families endured.

Those individuals who started that conversation helped create a new awareness for individuals and established community organizations alike, as well as form new organizations that would push toward the long arc of the moral universe that bent toward justice.

More voices at the grassroots level, as well as within our electorate, would join the chorus. The Redress Movement was growing, to quote Smokey Robinson, Warren Moore and William Robinson Jr., “Like a snowball rolling down the side of a snow covered hill.”

While many names of those who were instrumental for certain key aspects of Redress could be named here, for brevity’s sake it’s better to just acknowledge that there were many names and many players and many organizations that took part, many who started the race but couldn’t finish, and many who took the baton and ran for as long as they could before finishing or passing it on yet again.

Let it also be said that, despite whatever past institutional shortcomings some might rightly criticize it for, the Japanese American Citizens League was an integral part of the process of Redress.

In that process, many canards and red herrings would have to be re-examined: That President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 was needed for “military necessity”; that those who were removed had to be removed for their own protection; and that some people in this country who originated from certain countries could never be “real Americans.”

While those pathogenic concepts were, in the years before President Reagan’s enactment of H.R. 442, exposed to the sunlight that was supposed to disinfect that which is vile and fraudulent, mutant forms of those ideas have proven to be quite hardy. The lessons learned in the fight for Redress, then, must be evermore passed on and taught.

President Reagan, center, speaks on Aug. 10, 1988 before signing H.R. 442, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. (Pacific Citizen photo, © 2018, All Rights Reserved)

Thirty years ago, when before he put his signature to the bill, President Reagan quoted himself from December 1945, when he was Capt. Ronald Reagan, accompanying Gen. Joseph Stilwell to the Orange County, Calif., home of Army SSgt. Kazuo Masuda. Stilwell flew in to deliver in person to Masuda’s family the Distinguished Service Cross he was awarded for his heroism, having been killed in action while fighting the Nazis.

Said Capt. Reagan: “America stands unique in the world, the only country not founded on race, but on a way — an ideal. Not in spite of, but because of our polyglot background, we have had all the strength in the world. That is the American Way.”

In the months before, however, it appeared that he was not in favor of signing the bill. That President Reagan could be persuaded to do the right thing and act — no pun intended — so magnanimously in 1988 remains astonishing.

Sadly, a similar inspirational spirit in 2018 seems almost unimaginable.

[Note: To read the Aug. 19-26, 1988 issue of Pacific Citizen, visit https://tinyurl.com/yb8puolk]

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