An Apology For Discrimination – And A Lesson For The Future

  • August 9, 2013

August 10 marks the 25th anniversary of the enactment of the Civil Liberties Act, which provided a formal apology for grave mistreatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. 


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 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, the first step in the forced relocation and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese-Americans.

Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated in the camps throughout the western United States were forcibly uprooted from their communities, separated from their families and their homes and lost their personal liberties and freedoms until the end of the war – without any concrete evidence of their alleged disloyalty to America.

Unfortunately, a bad situation was made worse 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 convictions, writing that forced displacement and incarceration of Japanese-Americans were within the war powers of Congress and justified by the need to protect America’s national security.

In 1981, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians held hearings to investigate the treatment of Japanese-Americans, and it published its report, Personal Justice Denied, in 1983.  At that time, Korematsu, Hirabayashi and a third Japanese-American citizen, William Hohri, petitioned for formal review of their convictions.  ADL filed an amicus brief in Hohri v. United States, urging the Court to reverse these convictions so as to prevent future civil liberties violations by the government.

The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 formally recognized and apologized for these terrible wartime injustices, and paid reparations to an estimated 60,000 surviving Japanese-Americans who were affected. ADL testified in support of the legislation. The Act set an important standard for accountability and for taking national responsibility for past injustices.

Now, 25 years after the passage of the Civil Liberties Act, the League has updated a comprehensive classroom curriculum on the wartime treatment of Japanese-Americans, including video histories of Japanese-American internees, and background resources on Executive Order 9066 and the Civil Liberties Act.  

The anniversary provides a teachable moment to reflect on how our nation can address past injustices – and an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the ongoing work to confront the dangers of stereotyping, discrimination, prejudice, hate violence, and racial profiling.  Especially as we confront these and other daunting challenges today, it is clear that all Americans have a stake in remembering – and learning lessons – from the past.

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