Seventy-eight years ago today, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 came into effect, forcibly moving an estimated 120,000 US residents of Japanese descent (most of whom were US citizens) out of their homes and jobs and into concentration camps for the remainder of the Second World War. While public opposition to this policy was scarce, some of the most vocal critics of the policy came from African-Americans, who more readily recognized the patterns of racial oppression -- Langston Hughes and George Schuyler were some of the most prominent critics of the time. But perhaps none wrote against Executive Order 9066 with more clarity and force than the columnist Erna P. Harris. Her example gives us a model for building alliances by recognizing patterns of our own oppression in others.
Born in segregated Oklahoma in 1908, Harris became one of the first African-American women to earn a journalism degree. Her father was an early American follower of Gandhi and was widely considered in his community as courageous and principled. Taking after her father, Erna not only struggled against the endemic prejudice in her area, but she also faced backlash when she argued against mandatory military conscription in her own weekly newspaper, The Kansas Journal. Harris was forced to close her newspaper due to her politics in 1941, and then moved to Los Angeles where she joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an interfaith civil rights and social justice group, as well as the secular antiwar group the War Resisters League (WRL). About her experience with FOR and WRL, she later recounted: “We didn’t formalize it as a support group, but I was there taking my chances for going to prison… encouraging violation of the Selective Service Act and later when the guys were in the camp and some of them went over the hill from camps. A lot of them spent several nights on the floor in my living room in the apartment I rented with Ella, a German girlfriend. She and I had a little apartment and I would move out of my room and sleep back in her room so the COs could sleep on the floor in my room. They didn’t have any money and we were harboring criminals” (Harris, “US Women”). Erna also found a job with the Los Angeles Tribune, the youngest and most progressive of the three Black newspapers in the city. Now with a wider audience and some more support at her back, Erna began writing an editorial column around social issues, “Reflections in a Crackt Mirror.”
Not long after she began writing for the Tribune, President Roosevelt made Executive Order 9066, and law enforcement began rounding up Japanese-Americans in 1942. It quickly became apparent that the Tribune was the only newspaper, Black- or White-run, in Los Angeles to formally oppose the order. Harris particularly went after the executive policy, writing periodically about the internment issue for the duration of the war. As law enforcement began to forcibly remove tens of thousands of people from their homes, Harris wrote in the Tribune, “[T]o visit evacuation neighborhoods and talk with neighbors of the ‘evil, treacherous, fifth column menaces’ who are being summarily moved away, who have been adjudged guilty without any trial at which to claim innocence was to acknowledge an event with all earmarks of a legalized community lynching” (Harris, “Reflections”). The use of the word “lynching” to describe the federal policy must have been intentional to draw the connection between Black and Japanese oppression.
Indeed, in 1944, Harris wrote in her column, “Ever since the evacuation of Americans of Japanese ancestry and Japanese along the Pacific Coast was proposed, I have pointed out that the issue was one of race and on that basis affected anyone who was physically distinguishable as ‘colored’” (Harris, “Reflections”; emphasis added). Two years into the policy, it was becoming clearer to some that a failure to stand up against these injustices could mean an expansion of these kinds of policies to other groups as well. Harris began writing for other publications at the same time, working hard to connect other Americans to the plight of Japanese internment, but also to humanize Japanese-Americans on their own terms. After the Second World War was concluded, and tens of thousands of people were released from the camps, Harris continued to encourage interracial solidarity against White supremacy and White leadership, specifically encouraging Blacks to reject White-led “Brotherhood” initiatives and instead to form their own groups that “Nisei [second-generation Japanese-Americans], American Indians and other Americans whose physical characteristics make them detectable” could join and support.
Harris’ persistent and clear stance against Japanese internment likely played a part in the newspaper’s decision to hire a bevy of excellent Japanese-American writers after the war. Thousands of African-Americans had moved into suddenly vacant neighborhoods during the war; now, many of the original Japanese-Americans were returning to their homes, only to find a new community already there. The Tribune sought to bridge the divide between the two communities. Until Harris’ departure from LA in the early 1950s to work more with the antiwar movement, this Black champion of Japanese-American rights worked with several Nisei individuals who would find renown as well: most notably, Hisaye Yamamoto, one of the best known Japanese-American writers of the post-war era. Yamamoto, in turn, would later become heavily involved in the antiwar and civil rights movements herself, joining FOR and communicating its activities to the Japanese-American community, as well as helping to organize the LA chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1947.
For decades, Executive Order 9066 was largely forgotten in the collective American memory, but in part as a consequence of the civil rights movement, a new generation of Japanese-Americans began to organize and seek justice. The issue of Japanese internment only began to be redressed decades after the fact when Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which officially apologized for the inhumane treatment of Japanese-American citizens and made reparations payments to the survivors. The US Supreme Court only reversed the notorious 1944 decision in Korematsu v. United States (which upheld Executive 9066) three years ago in 2018, well after most of the victims had passed away. The State of California made its official apology for its role in the removal and internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII just last year in 2020. But even as recent lawmakers and justices patted themselves on their backs for these mostly symbolic acts of apology, the “Muslim ban” was still in effect and practically unchallenged, and ICE was still holding countless people including separated children in internment camps along the Southern border. As we now step into the next stage of the movement for Black lives, it is worth looking at how people built alliances in the past. Erna P. Harris’ showed us that alliance-building really begins with standing up for others -- and that such alliances can grow into movements that transform society.
Cramer, Maria. “California Plans to Apologize to Japanese-Americans Over Internment.” New York Times. 18 February 2020.
Ellen, Elster and Majken Jul Sorensen, Editors. “Women Conscientious Objectors: An Anthology.” War Resisters International, 2010.
Hurwitz, Deena and Craig Simpson. “Against the Tide: Pacifist Resistance in the Second World War - An Oral Story.” War Resisters League Calendar, 1984.
Robinson, Greg. “Erna P. Harris: An African-American Champion of Equality.” Discover Nikkei. 26 November 2019. http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2019/11/26/erna-p-harris/
Robinson, Greg and Nichi Bei Weekly. “THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT--The life and times of Hisaye Yamamoto: writer, activist, speaker.” Discover Nikkei. 14 March 2012. http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2012/3/14/hisaye-yamamoto/
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