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ADL Op-Ed on 25th Anniversary of Civil Rights Act: An apology for discrimination, and a lesson for the future.

Date: August 9, 2013

This op-ed appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal on Friday, August 9.

By Deborah M. Lauter

August 10 is the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Liberties Act, legislation which provided a formal apology for the wartime forced relocation and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans by the U.S. military following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The act also granted a small measure of compensation to surviving internees and their families.

The anniversary provides a teachable moment for how our nation can appropriately address past injustices — and an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the ongoing work to confront the dangers of stereotyping, discrimination, prejudice and racial profiling.

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 incited widespread fear and insecurity across the country. In response to the particular fear that Americans of Japanese ancestry might pose a threat to the U.S., President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942. The order authorized the creation of military zones from which the right of any person to enter, remain in or leave was subject to the discretion of the military commander.

Despite objections from Attorney General Francis Biddle and FBI Director John Edgar Hoover (both of whom believed it was unnecessary and unconstitutional) and a confidential report from a State Department special investigator affirming the deeply rooted loyalties of Japanese Americans toward the U.S. and denying any impending danger, FDR signed the order — thus beginning the forced relocation and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans.

Japanese American citizens and legal residents of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in the camps throughout the western U.S. were uprooted from their communities, separated from their families, their homes and their possessions, and lost their personal liberties and freedoms until the end of the war — without any concrete evidence of their alleged disloyalty to America.

In a dramatic demonstration of anti-Asian animus, only those who possessed less than one-thirty-second Japanese lineage and who could prove they had no contact whatsoever with other persons of Japanese ancestry were exempt from internment. Unfortunately, the actions were compounded when Congress enacted a law in March 1942 authorizing a civil prison term and fine for a civilian convicted of violating a military order.

The constitutionality of these acts was challenged in two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, Hirabayashi v. U.S. and Korematsu v. U.S. But the wartime Supreme Court upheld the government’s actions as constitutional and justified.

Both Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu were convicted for not reporting to the assembly centers. The court held that forced displacement and incarceration of Japanese Americans were within the war powers of Congress and justified because the government was acting out of military necessity to protect America’s national security.

In 1981, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians held 20 days of hearings, with hundreds of witnesses, investigating the impact of the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans. The commission published its report, Personal Justice Denied, in 1983.

At that time, Korematsu, Hirabayashi and a third Japanese-American citizen petitioned for formal review of their convictions, arguing that the U.S. government intentionally misled the court during the 1944 case as to whether those of Japanese descent posed a real threat to the U.S. ADL filed an amicus brief in these cases, including the U.S. Supreme Court case Hohri v. U.S., urging the court to reverse these convictions so as to prevent future civil liberties violations by the government.

By enacting the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, the U.S. gave formal recognition to these grave wartime injustices. The act was designed to officially recognize and apologize for these wrongdoings and to pay reparations to an estimated 60,000 surviving Japanese Americans who were affected. The Anti-Defamation League testified in support of the legislation.

The Civil Liberties Act set an important standard for accountability and for taking national responsibility for past injustices.

Especially as we confront daunting challenges of discrimination inequality, profiling, and bigotry today, it is clear that all Americans have a stake in remembering — and learning lessons — from the past.

Deborah M. Lauter is civil rights director of the Anti-Defamation League. The League has educational resources on the Civil Liberties Act on its web site at



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