Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of one of the greatest civil rights victories in U.S. history. But outside of coverage by news outlets like Rafu Shimpo and Pacific Citizen, and hopefully the L.A. Times op/ed page, I doubt this auspicious day will get much attention, especially outside California.
That said, President Ronald Reagan’s signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 a quarter century ago is right up there with other milestones that advanced the rights of U.S. citizens, like President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed women the right to vote, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Title IX, which equalized women’s sports at the university level. I say that in all seriousness.
Not only that, the Japanese American redress was unique in how it was accomplished. It wasn’t through violent means, be it a Civil War that helped ended slavery or riots that burned down cities, nor was it via civil disobedience like boycotts and sit-ins. It was through patience, diligence and citizen organization, utilizing educated and dedicated attorneys to push the right buttons in the legal system, and a lot of legislative and political savvy.
Tactically and culturally, redress was quintessentially Japanese American.
By these means, the Japanese American community compelled the United States of America to live up to its creed and prove that notions of equal treatment under the law, liberty and justice for all and the First Amendment right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances” were more than mere feel-good slogans trotted out for the Fourth of July and American Legion speech contests.
Because of the redress movement, this community made our United States better by making this nation walk the talk. (OK, Canada actually did it first — but who’s complaining?)
There was grumbling that the final legislation only went to those still living at the time it was enacted. Also, Japanese Latin Americans were overlooked. There were also competing legislative agendas and remedies, like the late William Hohri’s class-action lawsuit via the NCJAR (National Council for Japanese American Redress), and competing community organizations like JACL and NCRR (National Coalition for Redress/Reparations). There were also the coram nobis legal cases that were part of the bigger picture. The general direction toward justice, however, was the same.
So, in spite of the differences, H.R. 442, born of E.O. 9066 decades earlier, happened. It may not have delivered everything everybody wanted, but it was still an astounding accomplishment. Success, it has been said, has many fathers, and there is plenty of credit to go around. By any measure, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was success, a true victory for American values.
Yet the decades-long Japanese American redress movement did not, especially early on, have the full support among everyone in the Japanese American community.
Some felt an apology was all that was needed, that monetary compensation cheapened the experience of West Coast Japanese Americans forcibly displaced and incarcerated due to ancestral ties to Japan. Others, however, felt an apology without exacting some sort of payment would be hollow. Still others seemed to simply wish it would all go away and be forgotten.
Before redress could happen, there was also a generational gap to be bridged between the second-generation Japanese Americans who were either teens or young adults with a fully formed awareness when in the camps vs. those who were very young children or born in a camp or born in the years afterwards. To those born later, who came of age hearing the defiant oratory of black civil rights activists, the question to parents was, “How could you let them do that to you?” The answers, of course, were complicated.
Slowly, as the younger generation learned more, the older generation, now past the years of working and providing for families, began to rethink what happened. The concept of righting a past wrong began to grow and spread. The CWRIC (Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians) hearings of the early 1980s may have been the tipping point, after which momentum slowly began to grow.
Groups and individuals began to coalesce. Japanese American politicians who had been reluctant to take on the cause came around. Like-minded politicians who were not of Japanese ancestry, as they learned the stories, joined in, too. The decades-earlier valor of Japanese American WWII veterans, whose record was unassailable, proved to be a gift to the future that would pay dividends unimaginable in the battlefield.
So it was on Aug. 10, 1988 that President Reagan signed into law H.R. 442, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. To this day, Reagan is still a controversial figure to some. But one fact is undeniable: He signed that bill into law. Yes, Reagan was in the tail-end of his second term, and he had nothing to lose. Say what you will about the man, but in this instance Ronald Reagan did the right thing.
I wish I could say I was there to see history happen, because at the time I worked at Pacific Citizen. But, as mentioned in a previous column on the recent passing of longtime P.C. editor Harry Honda, I nominated him, when the news broke at the 1988 JACL National Convention in Seattle that Reagan would sign the bill, to represent the paper at the Aug. 10, 1988 ceremony. As a Nisei who lived through that period of time, he deserved to be there more than I, even though he was no longer an editorial staffer.
Honda’s reporting on the event appeared soon after Aug. 10, 1988 and was just reprinted in the July 19-Aug. 1, 2013 issue of Pacific Citizen. I’m mentioned in the story, as was the case when Martha Nakagawa wrote about Rose Ochi in the July 11, 2011 Rafu Shimpo.
From Nakagawa’s article: “From her research with JACL, she knew Reagan had participated in a ceremony to present a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross to the family of Kazuo Masuda, a 442nd soldier killed in action. [Note: His hometown did not want him buried in the local cemetery. The issue of P.C. in which the story appeared was Dec. 15, 1945.]
“Ochi rushed to the Pacific Citizen office to look for the newspaper article. PC Editor George Johnston was just heading out the door to catch a plane to Seattle to attend the JACL National Convention.
“Ochi told Johnston, ‘George, this is more important. Miss your plane. You need to find this for me.’
“Johnston found the article, and Ochi faxed it to the White House.
“A few days later, [Sen. Alan] Simpson’s office notified Ochi that Reagan was going to hold a signing ceremony the following day. Ochi hopped on a red-eye flight. She arrived late and just as she sat down, she heard Reagan say her name.
“ ‘I almost fell out of my chair when I heard the President mentioning my role in sending him the PC article,’ said Ochi.”
From Harry Honda’s 1988 P.C. article: “George Johnston of the P.C. staff had researched the files for this story for Rose Ochi, who then sent the clipping to the president, as was acknowledged in his remarks.
“Apparently, it was the many JACLers present who appreciated Mr. Reagan’s mention of the JACL’s official publication, The Pacific Citizen, as most accounts the following day did not attribute the story of Gen.[Joseph] Stillwell’s presentation nor the remarks by ‘one young actor’ [who said]: ‘Blood that has soaked into the sands of a beach is all one color. America stands unique in the world, the only country not founded on race, but on a way — an idea. Not in spite of, but because of our polyglot background, we have had all the strength of the world. That is the American way.’
“‘The name of that young actor,’ Mr. Reagan concluded, ‘I hope I pronounce this right (evoking laughter here by some who knew of the incident) — was Ronald Reagan.’ It drew strong applause.”
As someone with an acting background, Reagan loved stories, was a student of stories. That’s part of what made him an effective politician. When he heard his own words from decades earlier, it had to have made a very strong emotional connection in his heart, strong enough to override the hard calculus from advisers who told him signing the bill was political poison.
So, the president of the United States signing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was also a case of literal poetic justice, verbal judo that saw Reagan’s own words said as a young man sway him to make the just decision.
But as important as my small but evidently important part in getting those words to the auditioner-in-chief may have been, I’m embarrassed to admit that my usually good memory fails me in this instance. My recall of what was described by Harry Honda and Rose Ochi is vague, and if not for them, I probably would have completely forgotten this incident. If, however, that’s my contribution to the success of Japanese American redress, I’ll take it!
So, with 25 years gone by, what can we do with this precious legacy? There’s still work to be done, I say. Every American elementary school kid learns of the greatness of Presidents Lincoln and George Washington, not to mention the actions of mere citizens like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Wouldn’t it be nice if they also learned of, among other greats, Americans with names like Min Yasui, Fred Korematsu or Gordon Hirababayashi?
Slowly but surely, it’s happening, just like redress itself. I have no doubt we can do this, too.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2013 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)