On the day after Memorial Day, Phoenix Public Library hosts a discussion of a forgotten chapter from the Great War saga. Journalist and filmmaker Frank Abe will be present at a screening of his documentary Conscience and the Constitution on Tuesday, May 29, at Burton Barr Central Library. Abe's subject is Japanese-American resistance to incarceration in concentration camps at the beginning of World War II.
It's well known that shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, more than 100,000 residents of Japanese ancestry, most of them citizens living in the western U.S. (though, oddly, not those living in Hawaii), were ordered imprisoned in concentration camps. Detained were both the Issei, or immigrants, and the Nisei, their U.S.-born offspring.
A third-generation Japanese American from northern California, Abe says he grew up wondering why his elders passively complied with the incarceration. The standard answer was that they did so to prove their loyalty as Americans. What Abe eventually learned was that there was an active resistance, and that advocates of compliance in the Japanese community were as opposed to them as the government was.
In January 1943, Japanese Americans, including those incarcerated, were permitted to volunteer for the Armed Services -- they had initially been barred from service -- and a year later they became subject to the draft. A group calling itself the Fair Play Committee (FPC) was organized in the camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. It advocated resistance to the draft until full civil rights were restored to Japanese Americans. This movement was opposed by the Japanese American Citizens League, which advocated "cheerful cooperation" as proof of loyalty.
In the largest mass trial in Wyoming history, 63 members of the FPC were indicted for draft evasion in May 1944. In June they were convicted and sentenced to three years in federal prison. Most were out for good behavior by 1946, and all were pardoned in 1947 by Harry Truman, as part of a blanket pardon of draft resisters. In August 1988, Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, by which the government formally apologized for these actions and awarded $20,000 to each of the survivors.
Part of the purpose of Conscience and the Constitution is simply bringing to light an all but completely forgotten episode in the history of the American civil rights struggle, one that happened more than two decades before Selma and Montgomery. Conscience and the Constitution suggests that the Heart Mountain draft resisters were, in their own way, fighting for American freedom as sincerely as the men who hit the beach at Normandy.
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