Looking Back at the Civil Liberties Act of 1988

President Ronald Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

August marks the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. With its passage, the US government formally apologized for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Furthermore, with this formal apology, the law called for monetary reparations to surviving victims of America’s concentration camps. This law came after many, many years of hard-fought battles and activism by the Japanese American community.

To recognize this anniversary, we reimagined the final gallery of our Common Ground: The Heart of Community exhibition to place an even stronger emphasis on the redress movement, its influences, and its accomplishments. Opening to the public on August 4, among the artifacts newly on display is the pen that President Ronald Reagan used to sign the Act, on loan for a year from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Also debuting in the gallery are two original pages of the Act. These include the page bearing President Reagan’s signature, as well as those of Congressmen Spark Matsunaga and, Norman Mineta, who is now Chair of JANM’s Board of Trustees. These pages are on loan to us from the National Archives and Records Administration for only a limited time, through September 23.

The anniversary seems a fitting time to share this excerpt from President Reagan’s speech given at the time of signing the bill into law.

The Members of Congress and distinguished guests, my fellow Americans, we gather here today to right a grave wrong. More than 40 years ago, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in makeshift internment camps. This action was taken without trial, without jury. It was based solely on race, for these 120,000 were Americans of Japanese descent.

Yes, the nation was then at war, struggling for its survival, and it’s not for us today to pass judgment upon those who may have made mistakes while engaged in that great struggle. Yet we must recognize that the internment of Japanese-Americans was just that: a mistake. For throughout the war, Japanese-Americans in the tens of thousands remained utterly loyal to the United States. Indeed, scores of Japanese-Americans volunteered for our Armed Forces, many stepping forward in the internment camps themselves. The 442d Regimental Combat Team, made up entirely of Japanese-Americans, served with immense distinction to defend this nation, their nation. Yet back at home, the soldiers’ families were being denied the very freedom for which so many of the soldiers themselves were laying down their lives.

Congressman Norman Mineta, with us today, was 10 years old when his family was interned. In the Congressman’s words: “My own family was sent first to Santa Anita Racetrack. We showered in the horse paddocks. Some families lived in converted stables, others in hastily thrown together barracks. We were then moved to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where our entire family lived in one small room of a rude tar paper barrack.” Like so many tens of thousands of others, the members of the Mineta family lived in those conditions not for a matter of weeks or months but for three long years.

The legislation that I am about to sign provides for a restitution payment to each of the 60,000 surviving Japanese-Americans of the 120,000 who were relocated or detained. Yet no payment can make up for those lost years. So, what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.

You can read a full transcript of Reagan’s speech here. Also, here’s a video of the President’s speech and the signing ceremony at which Norman Mineta (and others), were present:

 

 

There are still a few seats available for this Saturday’s conversation with Mineta and Dr. Mitchell T. Maki, President and CEO of Go For Broke National Education Center and lead author of Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Achieved Redress. Be sure to RSVP here.

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