The government’s World War II-era incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry sparked bitter disputes within the ACLU. They hold important lessons on the danger of wartime deference to government, and on holding fast to principle.
In June 1942, Fred Korematsu sat alone in a San Francisco prison cell. The young welder defied government orders forcing all persons of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast to leave their homes to live in detention centers. Korematsu was in love with an Italian American woman, and he wanted to marry her. For weeks, he evaded authorities before getting arrested on a San Leandro street corner.
When a guard told him he had a visitor, Korematsu couldn’t imagine who it could be. The military had taken his family and Japanese American friends to the Tanforan Assembly Center, a camp hastily built on a muddy, horsefly-infested racetrack south of San Francisco.
Korematsu recalled, “My visitor introduced himself as Mr. Ernest Besig of the American Civil Liberties Union. He said his organization was seeking a test case to challenge the constitutionality of the evacuation order. He wanted to represent me.”
That first meeting would ultimately result in one of the most infamous U.S. Supreme Court decisions in American history.
It also led to bitter disputes between the ACLU national office and its West Coast affiliates. These disagreements are vital to understanding the organization’s history. They are also crucial lessons on effectively challenging discrimination, at another moment when our government is targeting people based on race, religion, and national origin in the guise of national security.