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Remember, and never be silent: On the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066

As we have seen in recent weeks, presidential executive orders can come swiftly, barreling down on a population with the stroke of a pen. They can have enormous influence, enormous consequences. And, again as we have seen, they can also be resisted by the populace and overruled by the judiciary when they outrage our sense of decency and conflict with the letter of the law.

But we can never take such an outcome for granted—especially when an executive order seems to fly in the face of this society’s most basic and revered values, while severely and cruelly impacting the lives of innocent people.

This Sunday, it will be 75 years ago to the day that an executive order perpetrated a grave injustice upon many tens of thousands of our fellow citizens and community members. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which led to the forced evacuation of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes and into internment camps spread across the United States.

Forty years later, a government commission would find that the action had not been militarily necessary and was unjust. Several years later the government issued redress payments and a letter of apology to formerly interned Japanese Americans who were still alive. And yet today a similar targeting of our American neighbors is taking place, this time based on their religious affiliation and/or their actual or presumed immigration status.

On this day, we, people of conscience, remember. On any day, in the face of attempts to repeat the racist targeting of difference or the scapegoating of the innocent, we will not be silent.

GLIDE Co-Founder Janice Mirikitani’s many years of work in civil rights causes, on behalf of various marginalized and oppressed communities, includes the struggle for redress for Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II. A Sansei (third generation) Japanese American, Mirikitani and her family were confined in the Rohwer, Arkansas concentration camp in this country’s mass internment of Japanese Americans. The passages below are from Beyond the Possible (2013), co-authored with her husband, Rev. Cecil Williams. The following poem is from her collection, Out of the Dust (2015).


Heart Mountain, Wyoming, one of ten concentration camps where thousands of Japanese Americans faced internment after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Photo of a silkscreen by R. Tokeshi, courtesy of Janice Mirikitani.

“At GLIDE we say that everyone is in recovery from something. You needn’t be addicted to want to cover up emotional pain that’s been buried for a long time. ‘For you to gain recovery,’ Cecil told our first recovery circles in the 1980s, ‘you’ve got to go back to the beginning of your pain and come forward again. You’ve got to tell the truth, your whole story.’

“Breaking one’s silence to tell the whole story had become a mantra at GLIDE and a life goal for me. Japanese Americans of my mother’s generation were called ‘the silent minority’ in part because most families didn’t speak about life as internees during World War II. . . . The silence about the internment in my family was filled in by repeated statements from my mother about white people seeing us as inferior. Overt racism directed toward us after the war caused me to grow up ashamed of my Japanese ancestry.

“Then I came to GLIDE.

“Like many people there, I learned the power of telling our stories openly and without apology….

“These feelings inspired in me a passion similar to Cecil’s for civil rights. I discovered that instead of turning the rage against myself, I could make my voice and others’ heard; I could fight for justice from the perspective of the marginalized, the profiled, the stereotyped, and the discriminated against. American society did not expect the Japanese Americans to fight for redress—one presidential administration after another assumed the camp experience would fade from history books and not be discussed in American classrooms. This assumption was the worst kind of precedent that could happen in a democracy—if it could happen to us, it could happen to any group.” [237-38, 240-41]

Breaking Silence
For my mother

There are miracles that happen
she said,
From the silences
in the glass caves of our ears,
from the crippled tongue,
testimonies waiting like winter.
We were told
that silence was better
golden like our skin
useful like
go quietly,
easier like
don’t make waves,
expedient like
horse stalls and deserts.

“Mr. Commissioner…
…the U.S. Army Signal Corps confiscated
our property…it was subjected to
vandalism and ravage. All improvements
we had made before our incarceration
were stolen or destroyed…
I was coerced into signing documents
giving you authority to take…”
to take
to take.

My mother,
soft as tallow,
words peeling from her
like slivers of yellow flame.
Her testimony,
a vat of boiling water
surging through the coldest
bluest vein.
She had come to her land
as shovel, hoe, and sickle searing
reed and rock and dead brush,
labored to sinew the ground
to soften gardens pregnant with seed
awaiting each silent morning
fields of flowers,
mustard greens and tomatoes,
throbbing like the sea.
And then
All was hushed for announcements:
“Take only what you can carry…”
We were made to believe our faces
betrayed us.
Our bodies were loud
with yellow screaming flesh
needing to be silenced
behind barbed wire.
“Mr. Commissioner…
…it seems we were singled out
from others who were under suspicion.
Our neighbors were of German and
Italian descent, some of whom were
not citizens….It seems we were
singled out…”
She had worn her work
like lemon leaves,
shining in her sweat,
driven by her dreams that honed
the blade of her plow.
The land she built
like hope
grew quietly
irises, roses, sweet peas
opening, opening.
And then
all was hushed for announcements:
“…to be incarcerated for your own good”
The sounds of her work
bolted in barracks…
Mr. Commissioner…
So when you tell me I must limit
when you tell me my time is up,
I tell you this:
Pride has kept my lips
pinned by nails
my rage coffined.
But I exhume my past
to claim this time.
My youth is buried in Rohwer,
Obachan’s ghost visits Amache Gate.
My niece haunts Tule Lake.
Words are better than tears,
so I spill them.
I kill this,
the silence…
There are miracles that happen
she said,
and everything is made visible.
We see the cracks and fissures in our soil:
We speak of suicides and intimacies,
of longings lush like wet furrows,
of oceans bearing us toward imagined riches,
of burning humiliations and
crimes by the government.
Of self-hate and of love that breaks
through silences.
We are lightning and justice.
Our souls become transparent like glass
revealing tears for war-dead sons,
red ashes of Hiroshima
jagged wounds from barbed wire.
We must recognize ourselves at last.
We are a rainforest of color
and noise.
We hear everything.
We are unafraid.
Our language is beautiful.

(Quoted excerpts from my mother’s testimony, modified with her permission)