Japanese American Citizens League

Identification: Voluntary organization formed to protect and promote the rights of Japanese Americans

Date: Established in 1929

Also known as: JACL Significance: The Japanese American Citizens League was founded to protect the civil rights of Japanese Americans but quickly became a champion of all civil rights issues affecting people of all backgrounds.

The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) was founded in California in 1929 in response to the anti-immigration fervor and legislature that was gaining popularity and support. The organization’s mission was to protect the civil rights and liberties of all people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, nationality, or gender.

Early twentieth century California had the largest Japanese American population of any state in the United States. It also had more than one hundred statutes limiting the rights of residents of Japanese ancestry. Groups such as the Grange and the Native Sons of the Golden State used their power both at the state level and in the U.S. Congress to pass legislation that limited the rights and political participation of Japanese and Japanese American citizens. Far more extreme were organizations such as the Asiatic Exclusion League, whose purpose was to purge theWest of all Asian residents, including those born in the United States. Although the organization was inexperienced, the JACL challenged not only anti-Asian organizations but also the discriminatory congressional legislation that limited Asian rights.

The importance of the JACL came to a head on December 7, 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hours after the attack, U.S. government officials raided offices and homes of Japanese in Hawaii and along theWest Coast of the United States, imprisoning many leaders of the Japanese community, including senior JACL members. Juniormembers of the organization then had to defend their colleagues and fellow citizens under a climate of fear and anger toward all things Japanese. The JACL ensured that the interned were protected and enjoyed a reasonable level of physical comfort. It also kept the Japanese American community aware of developments through its newspaper, Pacific Citizen, and won the right for Japanese Americans to serve in the U.S. armed forces during World War II.

Following the release of internees after World War II ended in 1945, the JACL continued to be a champion for civil rights. In 1946, the group began a painstaking campaign to repeal California’s alien land law, which prohibited Asian immigrants from owning land in the state. This was followed by the formation of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in 1948 and support of the federal Evacuation Claims Act during the same year in its quest for compensation for Japanese who had been interned during World War II. JACL’s work on the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 allowed women to gain entry into the democratic process, and the organization lobbied strongly for the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In 1978, the JACL launched an investigation into the losses suffered by Japanese and Japanese Americans who had been sent to relocation camps. The organization supported the formation of a government commission, which was sponsored by President Jimmy Carter, to study the issue. In 1982, the commission declared that the federal government’s actions during the war had been unconstitutional and recommended payment of a monetary redress. The redress was awarded under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, providing compensation and a presidential apology to victims.

During the early twenty-first century, the JACL continued to lobby for civil rights. One of the issues that it has championed is the right for humans to marry, including marriage for same-sex couples.

Sara Vidar

Further Reading

Gruenewald, Mary Matsuda. Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese American Internment Camps. Troutdale, Oreg.: NewSage Press, 2005.

Harth, Erica. Last Witnesses: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of the Japanese. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Japanese American Citizens League. The Journey from Gold Mountain: The Asian American Experience. San Francisco: JACL, 2006.

See also: Anti-Japanese movement; Asian American Legal Defense Fund; Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance; Asiatic Barred Zone; Asiatic Exclusion League; California; Japanese American internment; Japanese American press; Japanese immigrants; World War II.

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