The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 – A Long Time Coming

August 10, 2018 marks the 30th anniversary of the enactment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (download a PDF of the actual bill), the legislation that provided redress and reparations for the forced removal and unjust incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese/Japanese Americans in American concentration camps, and other confinement sites, during World War II.

Former incarcerees who were still alive on August 10, 1988, or their immediate family members, were eligible to receive the $20,000 individual reparations payment. A $50 million education fund was also created as a part of the legislation.

In the printed program for the 49th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 28, 2018, Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey wrote about the significance of the redress movement and of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

Much to our dismay, the Trump Administration has attacked immigrant children, primarily of Latino origin, tearing them away from their families and incarcerating them in facilities that often have such poor conditions that they are, essentially, concentration camps. They have also instituted a discriminatory travel ban targeting Muslims and they have offered less than tacit support of white supremacists. There have also been constant attacks by the Administration on the Constitutional rights of LGBTQ people, and the list goes on.

Under these circumstances, the lessons from the Japanese American Incarceration experience and the movement to achieve redress are more relevant today than we would like them to be. As such, on this day in particular, the 30th anniversary of the enactment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, we are publishing Embrey’s article below.


by Bruce Embrey

The passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was a milestone achievement for the Japanese American community in particular, and our nation, in general. An apology, reparations, and acknowledgement of a “grave injustice” came nearly 50 years after the last of America’s concentration camps shuttered. Yet acknowledging that a failure of political leadership, racism and wartime hysteria resulted in some 120,000 person of Japanese ancestry losing years of their lives made lives whole and was a triumph of democracy.

The legislation was far from perfect (Japanese Latin Americans were denied redress and are still excluded). Nevertheless, the recognition that Executive Order 9066, and the resulting forced removal of the Japanese American community on the West Coast, was unlawful and a violation of Constitutional and human rights, helped lift a burden of shame. Furthermore, it challenged the notion that a whole community, American and immigrant alike, should be victimized in the name of national security.

Silent No More

The passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was the direct result of the rise of the political strength of the Japanese American community and Asian American communities. The broader Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, led by the African American community, inspired, and empowered Asian Americans to seek equality on every level. College students demanded Ethnic Studies and challenged the model minority myth by remaining silent no more.

Within the community at large, as younger people demanded their history be told, a small, vocal group of Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans; the children of immigrants) began to explore the idea of redress. Beginning in 1970, Edison Uno, along the Seattle chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), William Hohri of the National Coalition for Japanese American Redress, and Paul Tsuneishi, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, and Phil Shigekuni of EO 9066, Inc., in Los Angeles, all began to call for a formal recognition of the illegal nature of Executive Order 9066 and for reparations for the damage inflicted on the community. In 1980, the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations was formed, creating a national effort alongside the JACL-Legislative Education Committee.

While the debate raged within the Japanese American community on redress and reparations, some of the children of those incarcerated launched a concurrent effort to begin to understand the true nature of the camps. In 1969, the first community-wide Manzanar Pilgrimage was organized, led by Victor Shibata, Warren Furutani and Jim Matsuoka. Once there, they, and those returning for the first time since the war, all recognized the profound import of remembering what happened on those grounds.

In 1971, the newly-formed Manzanar Committee, led by former incarcerees including Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Jim and Faye Matsuoka, Ryozo Kado, and a handful of Sansei (third generation Japanese Americans), concluded that America’s concentration camps were the direct result of decades of racist and anti-immigrant policies and that the forced removal was no mere mistake or pardonable overreaction to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Rather, it was a grievous violation of Constitutional and civil rights. Camp, and the forced removal, were the direct result of racism, economic greed, and a failure of political leadership that our country must recognize and atone for.

Beginning in 1971, the Manzanar Committee and the JACL wrestled with the California State bureaucracy to establish Manzanar as a state historic landmark. The wording on the plaque placed there in 1973 by Manzanar’s renowned stone mason, Ryozo Kado, endured the test of time, precisely because it captured the true nature of the forced removal and subsequent incarceration of our community.

Congressional Hearings

The Japanese American Congressional delegation (Representatives Robert Matsui and Norman Mineta, Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga) took decisive steps in Congress to push the redress movement forward. They proposed the creation of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to explore the issue through community hearings.

This was a turning point: a Congressional commission holding hearings allowed those quiet Americans to voice their outrage, indignation, and to demand our nation make amends.

Redress will be a hollow victory for our community if we stand idly by while others are threatened. Given our community’s experience, we have a special obligation to stand up when others are persecuted. Given the current wave of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim fear mongering and immigrant scapegoating we must not remain silent. It our duty as Americans who endured one of America’s ugliest missteps to ensure the civil, human, and Constitutional rights of all people be protected during times of crisis. This is the real lesson we, and all Americans, must learn.

The victory of the coram nobis cases of Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu and Minoru Yasui added even more fuel to the fire, vacating the decisions [of Hirabayashi and Korematsu; Yasui died before his court hearing] and exposing the fact that the U.S. Government knowingly withheld evidence that proved no military necessity existed. Many justice-minded members of Congress, notably the Congressional Black Caucus—Ron Dellums, Mervin Dymally, and others—took up the cause and joined the Japanese American delegation. Despite tremendous anti-Japanese sentiment nationally, coupled with a fiscally conservative mood, the moral and righteous indignation of the whole community proved to be decisive.

A coming together of our community and the painstaking development of a nationwide grassroots movement was only possible because of the willingness of those who were incarcerated to tell their stories, first at Pilgrimages and community meetings and then before an entire nation during the hearings of the Commission on Wartime Internment and Relocation of Civilians in 1980-81.

The shame and humiliation were transformed into righteous anger and moral indignation, propelling Nisei and Sansei alike to demand our government redress the wrongs inflicted upon the Japanese American community.

Clearly, the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was truly a people’s victory for the Japanese American community and for all democratic-minded people everywhere.

Executive Order 9066 and the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 are more than a Japanese American story. They serve as a profound lesson of what can happen when a group is profiled and scapegoated in the name of national security. It is an American story, capturing both the strengths and weaknesses of our nation’s democracy—its fragility and its resilience.

Redress will be a hollow victory for our community if we stand idly by while others are threatened. Given our community’s experience, we have a special obligation to stand up when others are persecuted. Given the current wave of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim fear mongering and immigrant scapegoating we must not remain silent. It our duty as Americans who endured one of America’s ugliest missteps to ensure the civil, human, and Constitutional rights of all people be protected during times of crisis. This is the real lesson we, and all Americans, must learn.

Bruce Embrey is Co-Chair, Manzanar Committee. He writes from Los Angeles, California.

The views expressed in this story are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.


Creative Commons License The Manzanar Committee’s Official Blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Manzanar Committee Official Blog – Licensing and Copyright Information.

Manzanar Committee Comment Policies

Please post your comment on this story below

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: