Today the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors took a small step toward correcting a large mistake. 70 years after one of the nation's most flagrant violations of American constitutional rights, the Board voted to repeal its 1942 resolution calling for the internment of Japanese Americans, an act that helped tip the scales of justice toward injustice.
Many have asked me why such action is necessary. How can the government of today undo an act of decades past? My answer is this: it is the right thing to do, and there is no timetable, no deadline or past due date for justice. Nor is there any shame in admitting a wrong -- only in willfully leaving it uncorrected.
In the weeks following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. officials were split over whether it was necessary -- or even legal -- to conduct a mass roundup and evacuation of Japanese Americans and people of Japanese descent.
There were voices against internment: President Franklin D. Roosevelt's advisor on the matter, Curtis Munson, concluded Japanese Americans were not "any more disloyal than any other racial group in the United States with whom we went to war." Even FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, hardly a civil libertarian, held that there was "no security justification" for a mass evacuation of Japanese Americans.
Then, in January 1942, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors weighed in the municipality that was home to the largest Japanese-American community on the continent, provided the jolt of fury that subsequently turned public hysteria into public policy.
In the days and weeks following the Board's resolution, the news media piled on. The Los Angeles Times, for example, declared on its pages "A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched" so a U.S.-born Japanese American "grows up to be a Japanese, not an American."
Another headline in the Times took at face-value a declaration by Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron: "Lincoln Would Intern Japs."
The flood of political and media support, combined with widespread public prejudice, gave Roosevelt the mandate he sought to issue Executive Order 9066. Subsequently, more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent -- nearly one-third of who were from Los Angeles -- were held in camps for up to three years.
The federal government has since apologized for the internment. The Board of Supervisors has also made some amends; in 1982, the Board, led by my predecessor Kenneth Hahn, voted to compensate 35 County employees who were fired in 1942 solely due to their Japanese heritage. But the original Board resolution, the declaration that Japanese American residents of Los Angeles County posed a national security threat, has remained on the books - until today.
There is now broad public consensus that Internment was a travesty of justice and frankly, all we are doing as supervisors is swimming with the current. Yet by correcting a long-ago injustice, we can remind ourselves that there are plenty of civil rights questions today that must be handled justly -- and courageously.
Today, it is my hope that the notion of singling out any class of Americans as deserving of singularly harsh treatment is repugnant, but even after World War II, as a nation we have struggled with this ideal.
We saw this kind of mass suspicion in 1960, when John Kennedy's Catholic faith was an issue in his campaign for president. We see it in the rise of hate crimes against American Muslims. We see it again today every time an elected official or media figure legitimizes the absurd questioning of President Obama's birthplace.
The Board's action today must reminds us to vigilantly hold firm to our nation's principles -- even when it may be costly to do so. In America, we have no "strangers from a different shore," as President Roosevelt mistakenly asserted.
The greater threat to our country comes not from those who speak a language or hold a faith other than our own; it surfaces instead when citizens and leaders forget or ignore our nation's founding principles. So today, we reaffirm our commitment to those founding principles. We shall remember how they were breached in 1942, when good people gave-in to bad impulses.
Ultimately, our liberty is secured by steadfastly adhering to our Constitution, and we are at our best as Americans when we have the courage to do so - even when our own urges and the tide of public opinion provoke us to do otherwise.
Follow Mark Ridley-Thomas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mridleythomas