Famed civil rights attorney and USC alumnus Dale Minami joined nearly 100 students for a discussion about the history of Japanese American internment and civil rights Tuesday.
Minami, who notably overturned the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Korematsu v. United States, which justified the internment of approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans, was invited by professor Alison Dundes Renteln to speak in her “Human Rights” course.
“He has been one of the great legal minds in our time,” Dundes said as she introduced him. “[He is] certainly a hero of mine. I’ve admired him for many years.”
Minami attended UC Berkeley’s School of Law, which was previously named the Boalt School of Law after John Boalt, now known for being an anti-Chinese racist. Dundes Renteln said Minami played a role in changing the school’s name after backlash from students. She drew a parallel to the controversy surrounding the Von KleinSmid Center on USC’s campus, which was named after former University president and eugenicist Rufus Von KleinSmid.
Minami noted the importance of Japanese American rights and Japanese Remembrance Day, which commemorates the beginning of Japanese internment in 1942.
“We want to never forget what happened to Japanese Americans not just because of the tragic injustices they suffered, but for all of America to understand the fragility of our civil rights,” Minami said.
Minami also summarized the history of Japanese internment during World War II. He said Pearl Harbor, the 1941 Japanese attack on American forces in Hawaii, started the U.S.’s conflict with Japan. On Feb. 19 that year President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order that allowed military leaders to evacuate anyone they deemed a national threat.
This allowed John DeWitt, an anti-Japanese general in the Army, to order his soldiers to relocate and imprison Japanese people. Minami said DeWitt believed all Japanese people were enemies to the United States, even if they were citizens.
“He applied that to Japanese Americans and not just citizens of Japan,” Minami said. “And that began years of infamy, and that was the banishment and exile of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, some with as little as 48 hours notice.”
Minami also recounted the experiences of his own family in the aftermath of the executive order. He said his family was only able to take two suitcases with them. His younger brother was only 1 year old when his family was forced to relocate.
“They were essentially imprisoned … They had no due process rights,” Minami said. “They didn’t have the right to attorneys; they had no right to the notice of charges, no right to a trial enshrined in the Fifth Amendment … These are due process rights, they’re almost inviolable.”
Minami discussed three landmark cases he worked to overturn, including Korematsu and Yasui v. United States and Hirabayashi v. United States, which both reinforced the implementation of curfews for people in internment camps during wartime.
Since the cases have been overturned, Minami said there have been new forms of injustice and calls for deportation and internment, including President Donald Trump’s executive order banning people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. He said Trump used Japanese internment as a precedent for these bans.
“This is a massive racial and religious profiling that he is doing, but Donald Trump is demanding complete deference to his order,” Minami said. “That’s exactly what the president did during Korematsu.”
He said Trump’s reasoning behind the proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexican border is similar to the reasoning behind Japanese internment and exclusion because it is based in prejudice rather than facts about illegal immigration.
“The wall that is declared a national emergency, [for] national security, you must support this wall because we have a national emergency,” Minami said.
Thomas Kim, a junior majoring in international relations asked about Minami’s opinion on the current case of Asian Americans challenging affirmative action at Harvard University.
“I really dislike what they’re doing because they’re being used: It’s not Asian Americans who simply do it,” Minami said. “This is being driven by an anti-affirmative action white person.”
Bita Minaravushi, a doctoral student in the population health and place program, said she enjoyed hearing the connections Minami made between the Trump v. Hawaii case and past cases that affirmed Japanese internment practices.
“I had never made those relations myself, so it’s really great,” Minaravushi said. “They’re great warnings, they’re great lessons from history, and I can continue learning from them.”