The recent executive order temporarily banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries brings to many minds an earlier, ugly incident from American history. As is often the case, those who do not know their history are destined to repeat it.
An op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times spoke to this earlier, discriminatory ban. When Lies Overruled Rights tells the story of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
“Seventy-five years ago on Sunday, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, all people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast were forced to leave their homes and report to incarceration camps. Two-thirds were American citizens. Fred Korematsu, my father, then 23, refused to go. A proud and loyal citizen, he had tried to enlist in the National Guard but was rejected and was wrongly fired from his job as a welder in an Oakland, Calif., shipyard He was arrested and tried for defying the executive order. Upon conviction, he was held in a horse stall at a hastily converted racetrack until he and his family were moved to a desolate camp in Topaz, Utah. My father told me later that jail was better than the camp.
He appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court. In his case, and in cases brought by Minoru Yasui and Gordon Hirabayashi — among the most infamous cases in American legal history — the court in 1944 upheld the executive order. Justice Frank Murphy vehemently opposed the majority decision, writing in a dissenting opinion, “Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life.” In the hysteria of war and racialized propaganda, my father’s citizenship did not protect him. For him and the 120,000 other Japanese-Americans incarcerated during World War II, there was no attempt to sort the loyal from the disloyal.”
The entire op-ed is worth a read. And I’m pleased to note that the National Trust has been working to save one of the places that tells the stories associated with the Japanese-American experience: the Panama Hotel.
“The Panama Hotel, an early 20th century five story brick structure, is an outstanding example of the single-room occupancy hotels that characterize Seattle’s pre-World War II Nihonmachi (Japantown). Constructed in 1910 and designed by Seattle’s first Japanese American architect, Sabro Ozasa, the structure, building design, materials and uses are remarkably intact. The basement includes the Hashidate Yu, the best surviving example in the U.S. of an urban Japanese-style bath house or sento. Also, in the basement is a large storage area containing the belongings of Japanese Americans incarcerated in World War II as well as remnants of the early operations of this commercial building.”
The Panama Hotel is a place that speaks to the true resilience of the American spirit. It is a poignant place that reminds us of what happens when lies and fear take precedent over our constitutional rights. This is a historic place as relevant today as it was 70+ years ago.
More to come…