This post is part of our series on the Bill of Rights. We’re highlighting primary sources from our student workbook Putting the Bill of Rights to the Test, that helps students explore core concepts found within the Bill of Rights, and how they’ve impacted American history. This year marks the 225th anniversary of the ratification of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. The National Archives is commemorating the occasion with exhibits, educational resources, and national conversations that examine the amendment process and struggles for rights in the United States.
American citizens can sometimes take their “inalienable rights” for granted.
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II, in reaction to growing hysteria along the Pacific coast from Alaska to Southern California and in the Hawaiian Islands, families of Japanese ancestry were sent to hastily built “relocation” camps further inland.
They had committed no crimes. Almost 2/3 of them were American citizens. This included thousands of small children. Because of a largely unfounded, but perceived, public danger they were denied the Constitutional right to due process through the courts and were sent en masse to live in tar-paper dormitories, solely because they were of Japanese ancestry.
The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states:
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Because of the perception of “public danger,” all Japanese within varied distances from the Pacific coast were targeted. Unless they were able to dispose of or make arrangements for care of their property within a few days, their homes, farms, businesses and most of their private belongings were lost forever.
First, they were sent to “assembly centers” – often racetracks or fairgrounds – where they waited and were tagged to indicate the location of a long-term “relocation center” that would be their home for the rest of the war.
They were then sent by train or bus to their assigned Center, which were often very far away from their homes, often with very different climates and harsh conditions. There were nine primary “relocation” centers at:
- Manzanar, California
- Tule Lake, California
- Minidoka, Idaho
- Amache, Colorado
- Heart Mountain, Wyoming
- Topaz, Utah
- Gila River, Arizona
- Jerome, Arkansas, and
- Rohrer, Arkansas.
At these “relocation centers” they were housed in army-style barracks, usually shared with several other families. Most lived in these conditions for nearly three years or more until the end of the war. Gradually some insulation was added to the barracks and lightweight partitions were added to make them a little more comfortable and somewhat private.
During this period, three Japanese-American citizens were involved in legal actions in protest of this policy: Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu, and Mitsuye Endo. Hirabayashi and Korematsu received negative judgments, but Mitsuye Endo, after a lengthy battle through lesser courts, was allowed to leave the Topaz, Utah, facility.
Justice Murphy of the Supreme Court expressed the following opinion:
I join in the opinion of the Court, but I am of the view that detention in Relocation Centers of persons of Japanese ancestry regardless of loyalty is not only unauthorized by Congress or the Executive but is another example of the unconstitutional resort to racism inherent in the entire evacuation program. As stated more fully in my dissenting opinion in Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 , 65 S.Ct. 193, racial discrimination of this nature bears no reasonable relation to military necessity and is utterly foreign to the ideals and traditions of the American people. (Find more from this case on findlaw.com.)
In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act awarding compensation and issuing a formal apology for the U.S. military action affecting over 100,000 Japanese-American civilians during World War II.
These primary source documents might be used to begin classroom discussions using questions such as:
- Could we ever be deprived of the rights guaranteed to us by the U.S. Constitution and its amendments without good reason? What might cause such a severe response?
- What far-reaching consequences might occur if we had even a temporary suspension of your own rights? How would we pick up our lives after it was over?
- The relocation camps often had barbed wire surrounding them and guards in towers around the perimeter. Do you think they were actually prisons?
Documents, including those above and those found in some of the following resources, can be analyzed carefully by students depending upon their grade level. You might want to use our document or photograph analysis worksheets.
Online Lesson Plans
- National Archives celebrates 25th Anniversary of Civil Liberties Act & Japanese Reparation Act
- Korematsu Institute
- Independence Hall Association
- National Park Service information:
- Other Relocation Camp locations:
- Videos about the camps: