Collins: Renunciants Are ‘Unsung Heroes’

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Son of civil rights lawyer Wayne Mortimer Collins delivers fiery speech at Tule Lake Pilgrimage.

Following Wayne Merrill Collins' keynote remarks at this year's Tule Lake Pilgrimage, audience members gather around him to thank and congratulate him on his speech. (Photo by Martha Nakagawa)

Following Wayne Merrill Collins’ keynote remarks at this year’s Tule Lake Pilgrimage, audience members gather around him to thank and congratulate him on his speech. (Photo by Martha Nakagawa)

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA

Keynote speaker Wayne Merrill Collins, the son of civil rights lawyer Wayne Mortimer Collins, gave a rousing speech that concluded with a standing ovation and the entire audience bowing in honor of the father, who worked for more than two decades to restore United States citizenship to thousands of Japanese Americans who had renounced.

Ten years ago, then-California Assemblyman George Nakano recognized Wayne Mortimer Collins by presenting a resolution to the son at the 2004 Tule Lake Pilgrimage.

In recalling that time, Barbara Takei said, “It was one of those pilgrimage moments in which all of us opened our hearts and cried for the pain and suffering and rejection that all these people who had been incarcerated at Tule Lake suffered because of their dissent.

“And we’re very grateful for Assemblyman Nakano for presenting a resolution to Wayne Merrill Collins, the son, at that time because it was the first public official recognition of the renunciant issue, and it happened at the Tule Lake Pilgrimage.”

Nakano, who did the honor of introducing the son at this year’s program, shared that recognizing Collins was one of the things he wanted to accomplish before being termed out of office.

The 2004 California resolution read in part: “Therefore, be it resolved by Assembly Member George Nakano, that he does hereby honor Wayne Mortimer Collins, who died on July 16, 1974, for his heroic and tenacious efforts in the legal struggle to restore citizenship to the renunciants of Tule Lake, and joins those for whom he fought so long and hard for in memorializing his fierce dedication to justice.”

Nakano, in his introduction of the son, credited the father for shutting down the Tule Lake stockade in 1944 and for regaining the U.S. citizenship of close to 5,000 Japanese American renunciants.

“On a personal note, both my parents were the beneficiary of his heroic and tenacious efforts,” said Nakano.

Nakano also praised the son for following in his father’s footsteps. “In November 1976, after graduating from law school and passing the bar, Wayne Merrill Collins has carried on the legacy of his father,” said Nakano. “He filed a presidential pardon petition for Iva Toguri d’Aquino (Tokyo Rose).

“The public disclosures revealed that the federal government withheld information on her innocence and used false testimonies to convict her. The disclosures were so convincing that on Jan. 19, 1977, in one of his last acts before leaving office, President Gerald Ford agreed with the recommendation of U.S. Attorney General Edward Levi, and pardoned Iva Toguri d’Aquino. She is the only person convicted of treason in his country who has been pardoned.”

• • •

Collins opened by putting the renunciation issue into historical context and discussing how renunciation impacted civil liberties for minorities and immigrants today.

He then compared the national ACLU and the Northern California ACLU, which he described as the “existence of two ACLUs.”

When World War II broke out, Collins noted that the national ACLU, headed by Roger Baldwin, voted not to challenge the constitutionality of the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans because they did not want to upset their access to President Roosevelt and others in power, in contrast to the Northern California ACLU, which remained fiercely independent and went in search of test cases.

“Institutions failed Japanese America in the course of World War II as much as individuals and the first of those institutions being the ACLU,” said Collins. “…Thus, you will find Roger Baldwin and the New York ACLU constantly interfering with the conduct and strategy of the evacuation cases which were primarily handled by Northern Californians.”

The two attorneys most associated with the Northern California ACLU were Collins’ father and Ernest Besig.

“My father was a very difficult man,” said Collins. “You should meet Ernie Besig. They were a great pair. Tenacity was one of the characteristic of both.”

Collins said when Besig began receiving letters from Tule Lake, complaining about the stockade and the overall living conditions, the War Relocation Authority unsuccessfully tried to dissuade Besig from visiting Tule Lake. When that failed, the WRA contacted Baldwin.

“He (Besig) found out that Roger Baldwin and (WRA director) Dillon Myer had gotten together, and Roger Baldwin had written Myer and the WRA not to allow Earnie Besig from the Northern California ACLU into camp without prior written authorization from Roger Baldwin,” said Collins. “So, there you had a problem.”

To get around this, Besig continued attempting to get Baldwin to approve taking on the stockade cases but also contacted Collins’ father.

The son added that corporations, at that time, did not have attorneys as staff members, and because the ACLU was a non-profit corporation, the father could be recruited to assist the ACLU but was not technically an ACLU staff member and thus, out of the control of Baldwin.

The WRA, as in Besig’s case, used delay tactics with Collins, but when Collins threatened habeas corpus proceedings that would bring about congressional investigations and negative publicity, the WRA was forced to set the stockade prisoners free and take down the fencing.

“It took that kind of threat and activity of fear of public exposure to a federal official to get any activity at all for the rights of the stockade internees because of pressure brought to bear through friends of the New Deal,” said Collins.

In referring to the various protesters from camp, Collins said, “Dissent is thought. And you can’t criminalize dissent. You can criminalize action. You can criminalize action involving some act injurious to someone else, but you can’t criminalize dissent.”

Collins pointed to the manifesto issued by the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee (FPC), which had called for the restoration of their constitutional rights before the men would agree to serve in the U.S. military. For this, the FPC members were sent to federal penitentiaries.

“Look at the declaration of petition from Heart Mountain, from those young men who wrote about the Constitution and the principles upon which this country was founded, and their knowledge of political theory, liberty, freedom, which is supposed to be the foundation of this country,” said Collins. “It is superior to anything you can find in the education system today.”

Collins pointed out that in addition to the ACLU, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) should be held responsible for compromising the civil rights of Japanese Americans.

•••

“Mike Masaoka (wartime JACL director) proposed a suicide squad to prove loyalty,” said Collins. “Which brings me to the second institution that failed Japanese Americans, and that is the JACL, which did nothing to support renunciants during the war…which pats itself on the back ever afterwards for the great work and benefit it conferred upon the Japanese American community.”

He noted that in reading Bill Hosokawa’s book “Nisei: The Quiet American,” he realized the founders of the JACL were all working professionals such as accountants, dentists, lawyers, who had the “special interests of a rising middle class” and thus, “had a potential real estate in the social climbing … and potential connection with people with similar backgrounds, and that’s why they were not above toadying to power.”

In a nod to Minnijean Brown-Trickey in the audience, Collins talked about how President Eisenhower had sent in U.S. troops to protect the African American students who were attempting to desegregate Central High in Little Rock in 1957.

“What if FDR had sent 1,000 U.S. marshals to California as well, to enforce the rights of Japanese Americans against any public outcry?” said Collins. “But he didn’t, so that steamrollered the hostility against Japanese Americans.”

Collins said FDR shirked his responsibilities as the president. “What was the obligation of the chief executive of democracy when you have people in congress asking for the complete denigration of the rights of 8,000 American citizens?” Collins said. “Your obligation is to be a tribute to the people’s rights and defend that minority. That is exactly what FDR did not do.”

Collins felt that calling the actions of FDR and those in his administration merely racist was too simple.

“They were not only racist,” said Collins. “That’s too easy an out for the administration. They should be called upon their dishonesty, upon their lack of morals, lack of commitment to the United States Constitution.”

Collins felt that those who had renounced being part of such a government were, in essence, focusing a light to the problem and fighting to forge a better country.

“Those who renounced, in so doing, preserved democracy in this country,” said Collins. “And when the history of World War II is considered, the heroes of that time are those who renounced.”

Collins blamed the U.S. government for all the beatings and riots that occurred in the camps. He even felt the Hoshidan, whose members coerced others to renounce, could not be blamed because the government placed them into a situation that took away all their constitutional rights.

“If you can’t protect loyal citizens from that (beatings), then you’ve got no business being a government,” said Collins. “They (the government) allowed it to happen. I would suggest that they let it happen because they thought it would be a good thing to get rid of renunciants and to trade them with Japan.”

In addition to attempting to use renunciants in prisoner-of-war exchanges with Japan, the U.S. government also decided to kidnap Japanese Latin Americans from South America to be used, as Collins described, “trade fodder, to use as chattels of commercial goods with trade with Japan for American POWs.”

Meanwhile, while the father was dealing with the stockade issue, he was approached by renunciants wanting his assistance to restore their citizenship. The government had passed a law allowing U.S. citizens to renounce their citizenship, upon the approval of the attorney general.

“He (father) had never heard of renunciants,” said Collins. “…And he couldn’t believe it.”

One of the first things the father did was write to U.S. Attorney General Tom Clark. Then he sent letters to every possible official related to the camps.

“He sent a letter to everyone who could possibly be connected with administering the camps because you wanted to start immediate fear in the government not to proceed with the deportations, which were already going into effect,” said Collins. “This led to Abo vs. Clark, which became my father’s entire life purpose. That was the class-action lawsuit brought to cancel renunciation.”

The father’s argument had been that the renunciants made their decisions while behind bars without counsel, without due process, and subjected to prejudicial harassment, threats from terrorist gangs and not protected by the government. “Such renunciation is not part of rational thought,” he said.

Collins noted that “more than one psychiatrist, more than one historian have concurred that Tule Lake in 1945 was an insane asylum, and that is because tension was so enormous that you could not make a rational decision.”

He pointed to some of the issues that were causing confusion among the Tuleans, many of whom were between the formative ages of 18 to 25, such as whether they should volunteer for military service or not; whether they should remain with their family or not; whether they should renounce to be with their Issei parents, who may be deported; whether to renounce in an attempt to sit out the war in Tule Lake; whether to renounce because they were terrified of going out of camp; whether to renounce to appease the pressure groups, which were threatening violence, etc.

“Under those unbearable circumstances, renunciation cannot be deemed to be valid under any stretch of the law,” said Collins.

By listing these various issues in the lawsuit, Collins said his father used a “shotgun approach.”

He also pointed to the importance of Besig’s affidavit pertaining to the stockade, which predated the father’s renunciation lawsuit, because the construction of the stockade and the abuse that went on inside it contributed to what Collins described as “the madness in that camp.”

Judge Louis Goodman, who was the only wartime judge to throw out the Nisei draft resisters case, agreed with the father’s findings, but the U.S. attorney general argued that he found additional evidence that some of the renunciants were, in fact, allegedly disloyal and requested more time to respond to Goodman’s ruling.

Four extensions later, the government attorney announced that his evidence indicated that everybody in Tule Lake was allegedly disloyal.

Complicating matters was the Murakami renunciation case filed by A.L. Wirin from the Southern California ACLU. This case involved three women and one minor. The women testified that they were in fear of their husbands and their husbands’ positions that they renounced their citizenship.

Victory in the Murakami case meant the burden of proof was placed on each individual renunciant to demonstrate that their renunciation was not valid due to duress. As a result, this ruling required Collins’ father to file a lawsuit for every individual renunciant, rather than proceed as a class-action lawsuit.

However, since filing thousands of individual lawsuits would destroy the court system, Collins’ father was allowed to proceed with individual affidavits. This would take the next two decades of his life.

“But the unsung heroes are the renunciants, who had the courage to go ahead and renounce, not just to support the Constitution but to protect our liberties and to run the risk of deportation to Japan, of loss of everything in this country — that’s the risk they took,” said Collins. “…And for the life of me, having grown up with Japanese Americans, I can’t understand why they should be ashamed of anything.”

After a lengthy standing ovation and emotional expressions of gratitude from the audience, Collins said, “My mother died in 1951 or ’52, just after Abo vs. Clark. My father’s personality changed a lot then. I don’t think he could have gone on were it not for the fact that Abo vs. Clark gave his life meaning, so the thanks is reciprocated.”

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