All photos by Dorothea Lange
This weekend marked the 75th anniversary of FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which forced the internment of over 120,000 men, women and children – over half of them American citizens – who happened to be of Japanese descent. Across the country, people held “Day of Remembrance” events to revisit a “dark chapter” in America when fear ruled – when the L.A. Times could proclaim of any Japanese-American, “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched,” and powerless families were routinely tagged, herded into trains “like cattle and swine,” and transported to barbed-wire-encircled camps that still stank like the horse stables they’d been not long before.
With an Islamophobic despot now summoning those “terrible echoes from the past” by casually declaring the “precedent” of locking up or out an entire group of people in the name of security, many Americans are standing up to say “Never Again.” Some cite the courage of Fred Korematsu, a young man who refused to be interned and took his case to the Supreme Court in 1942. He lost, but a prescient dissenting judge argued that the ruling “validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure…The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.” Korematsu’s conviction was vacated 40 years later.
It likewise took decades for the powerful photos of the camps by Dorothea Lange to re-surface. Hired by the government in 1942 to record the “evacuation” and “relocation” of Japanese Americans, Lange’s stark portraits of the reality of their new lives convinced the military to seize her photos and impound them for the duration of World War 2. They were then quietly deposited into the National Archives, where they remained unseen until about ten years ago. Seeing them now, it’s clear they expose what longtime activist and actor George Takei calls “our nation’s impulse toward demagoguery and tyranny by the whipped-up masses.”
Takei, who spent four years of his childhood growing up in an internment camp, cites three reasons for them – fear, prejudice and a failure of political leadership – all, alas, alive and well today. Arguing, “We are an interdependent people, sharing a common bond of humanity,” he says the goal of Trump’s despotic Muslim ban is “to strike fear into communities (and) divide the citizenry against itself.” But it must not pass: “The false narrative – that there are those who belong here and those who do not – is designed precisely to divorce us from the truth that we are all here and in this together.”