August 10, 2008, marked the 20th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (CLA). This historic legislation authorized the government’s apology and monetary restitution to each Japanese American who had been forcibly removed from the West Coast, incarcerated in America’s World War II concentration camps and was alive on the day of the signing of the redress bill. The CLA also required that each recipient must have been a U.S. citizen or permanent resident alien during the war. The presidential apology and reparations were ultimately provided to over 82,220 survivors.
The 20th anniversary is acknowledged by many Japanese American organizations for its significance not only to the JA community, but for its relevance to today’s concerns about the violations of civil and constitutional rights in the name of national security, the excesses of presidential authority, and the targeting of ethnic and religious minorities after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
NCRR’s Role in the Campaign
The Strength of Grassroots Activism
Every person who wrote a letter, signed a petition, sent a mail-a-gram, donated even a few dollars, attended a meeting or Day of Remembrance program was a participant in the over-eight -year campaign for redress and reparations. The grassroots campaign encouraged each person to get involved and valued each person’s effort as an important contribution to the struggle.
When President Reagan signed the redress bill in 1988, the Nikkei legislators and important Congressional friends stood around him. Senators Spark Matsunaga, Daniel Inouye, and Congressional members Norman Mineta, Robert Matsui, Patricia Saiki were there along with Barney Frank who was one of redress’ staunchest supporters. The importance of our Nikkei legislators and key friends was critical to the passage of the Act. Of tremendous importance, also, was the work of community members and the support of friends in the Latino, African American, and other communities. The earliest steps in the campaign focused on small meetings in homes, churches, and community organizations to talk about the camp experience and the importance of seeking redress. After almost 40 years, many Nikkei were reluctant to discuss this topic. Others, however, were grateful for this fledgling campaign.
Claiming our History
Their stories revealed little known consequences of the forced evacuation and imprisonment. We learned about families who had been separated by the government during the incarceration. With the government’s coercion, some families chose to go to war-torn Japan in order to reunite. Some families were never reunited. We found out about the Japanese from Latin America who were abducted by the U.S. government to be used as prisoners of war in a hostage exchange program with Japan.
Through the community’s redress campaign many more important parts of our history were revealed. We more fully realized the extent of the devastating effects of the government’s actions. Individuals and families were left with deep feelings of shame and tremendous loss. And, our community suffered painful schisms that remain even today. NCRR strongly demanded, “Redress Now! Reparations Now!”
The Community’s Victory
The victory, more than 40 years after the end of WWII, was spurred by the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement, and the inspiration of leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Ghandi, and Cesar Chavez.
Critical Factors in the Redress Campaign:
The 1981 Federal Commission Hearings
Critical to the passage of the CLA was the final report and conclusions of the CWRIC. The report stated that the causes of the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans were wartime hysteria, race prejudice and the failure of political leadership. The commission proposed that monetary reparations be paid to Japanese American former internees.
The Community’s United Front
The community sought the support of numerous local and national organizations including the National Lutheran Synod, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), city councils, human relations organizations, and the support of many other ethnic communities. We could not have achieved this victory alone.
Early Support from Congressman
In 1987 NCRR spearheaded a historic delegation of over 120 Japanese Americans of all ages to lobby Congressional members to support the redress bill. The community members volunteered their time and money to advocate for the legislation. Their visits to Congressional members put a face on the issue and provided persuasive information of personal losses and suffering.
NCRR is also grateful to Congressmen Robert Matsui and Norman Mineta for their support of the community’s grassroots organizing and lobbying efforts. Their willingness to speak at DOR programs, share their personal stories in Congress and provide leadership were important to the redress campaign.
Annual Day of Remembrance Programs
The passage of the Civil Liberties Act through the treacherous gauntlet of congressional committees was, by any measure, a tremendous victory for the community, a relatively small ethnic minority group.
Working with the ORA
NCRR established a close working relationship with the ORA and requested regular community meetings with ORA representatives. NCRR was grateful for the early leadership of ORA Director Bob Bratt and his staff.
The Fight Continued for Those Denied
NCRR participated in numerous lobbying delegations to Washington D.C. during the 1990’s to advocate for the broadest interpretation of the CLA and its regulations. We assisted individuals in appealing their denial status. Administrative remedies were ultimately reached by the ORA in several categories. Two of the groups to receive redress were the railroad and mine workers and the children of those who returned to Japan during the war. And, after the final denial of their redress appeals, victory was finally attained for the majority of the children of the early evacuees through successful lawsuits.
With the expertise and volunteerism of many community lawyers, NCRR helped individuals to pursue lawsuits when the Department of Justice offered no remedy.
The community’s victory, however, came at a high cost. Excluded from the benefits provided by the CLA were all former inmates who died before the Aug. 10, 1988 signing date. The oldest Issei , Nisei and their heirs would not receive the deserved reparations. Also excluded were the Japanese Latin Americans who were forced from their homes in Peru and other Latin American countries and forced into America’s concentration camps. Through the redress campaign, their tragic stories became known. Over 1600 Japanese Americans and Japanese Latin American redress applicants were found ineligible to receive redress.
The struggle of JLA’s to win equitable redress continues today and deserves everyone’s support to bring this shameful chapter of American history to a just conclusion.
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