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Franklin Roosevelt color photo
Right so often. Not this time.
Eleanor Roosevelt told her husband that the Executive Order he had signed on Feb. 19, 1942, No. 9066, was wrongheaded. A year later, FDR's order was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court by two young men. A friend of mine was clerking for Justice Hugo Black at the time, and he had the temerity to write a memo to Justice Black, telling him the vote he was about to cast on Dec. 18, 1944, denying the appeal, was misguided.

On this day thirty years ago, Feb. 24, 1983, a federal commission released a report that said the First Lady and Justice Black's clerk were on the right side of history, law and humanity, even though the U.S. Supreme Court, FDR, most of Congress, and a majority of the public believed otherwise.

The report, Personal Justice Denied, said it was an unconstitutional and immoral travesty for the U.S. government to imprison approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent during WWII. Most of them were American citizens, many were women and children, and others were the parents of U.S. soldiers fighting overseas to save democracy. They were removed to one of 17 internment camps spread across the country, located in some of the most desolate and hostile places imaginable.

To call them "Civilian Assembly Centers" or "internment camps" is a misnomer. They were prisons, complete with barbed wire fences, armed guards in towers, and heavy restrictions. Two of the largest prison camps were here in Arizona—one south of Phoenix on the Gila River Indian Reservation, another on the Colorado River near Parker, also on an Indian reservation. Both reservations had been carved out of Arizona's bleak deserts, land the authorities were willing to part with because of its minimal agricultural, ranching or mining potential. In a sense, by locating the Japanese American internment camps on reservations, the government created prisons within prisons.

Japanese American families had little time to prepare for their imprisonment—sometimes just days to dispose of their home and land, gather their belongings (only what they could carry), and report to the trains and buses that would take them sometimes thousands of miles to the camps. Many had been farmers, whose land was grabbed for pennies on the dollar by opportunists. A few were fortunate to place their homes and land with friends who held the property until the prisoners were released after the last camp was closed in 1946.

Internees made the best of their situation, creating schools, orchestras, theater and baseball teams. Babe Ruth and other MLB players challenged the team at Gila River—and lost. Few imprisoned families openly protested the government's decision, believing that they were demonstrating their patriotism by obeying Executive Order 9066. After their release, the victims seldom talked about internment, and it would take later generations—their children and grandchildren—to bring to light the injustice, which was rarely taught in schools, and to file formal complaints with the U.S. government.

Their perseverance resulted in President Gerald Ford rescinding 9066 on Feb. 19, 1976. Later, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. The commission's report, along with reparations and an apology from President Ronald Reagan, was released 30 years ago today:

The promulgation of Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it—detention, ending detention and ending exclusion—were not driven by analysis of military conditions. The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership. Widespread ignorance of Japanese Americans contributed to a policy conceived in haste and executed in an atmosphere of fear and anger at Japan. A grave injustice was done to American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry who, without individual review or any probative evidence against them, were excluded, removed and detained by the United States during World War II.
Mindboggingly, Japanese Americans closest to the Emperor in Japan were thought to be the most likely to retain allegiance to the homeland, even though they had lived here for decades—some their entire life. So the government drew a north-south line down the West Coast, and if Japanese Americans lived west of the line they were removed to the camps; if they lived east of the line they were supposedly less of a threat and could remain.

Here in Phoenix this stain on American history was especially poignant, since the line, which was Route 60, ran through the heart of town. Families and friends who lived on opposite sides of the line, just a few yards from one another, were torn apart.

One of the men who challenged 9066 and took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, Gordon Hirabayashi, would go on to become a distinguished sociology professor, holding positions in Lebanon, Egypt and Canada. He died last year at age 93. In 1987, the 1944 Supreme Court decision that ruled internment constitutional, which Justice Hugo Black later said was the vote he regretted most, was overturned, vindicating Dr. Hirabayashi. Constitutional scholar Peter Irons had uncovered evidence that proved internment was racist, rather than based on national security, which had been the government's position. That evidence was presented to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Judge Mary Shroeder of Phoenix wrote the decision nullifying Hirabayashi v. United States.

In 1997, Judge Shroeder, Professor Irons and Professor Hirabayashi met for the first and only time here in Phoenix. Justice Black's former clerk read his 53-year-old memo, Judge Shroeder read from her 1987 decision and Dr. Hirabayashi wept. As did nearly everyone else.  

Originally posted to Maggie's Farm on Sun Feb 24, 2013 at 07:23 PM PST.

Also republished by Phoenix Kossacks.

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