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“The Rights of All Must Be Secured or the Rights of None Will Be Secure”: Arguments for Federal Civil Rights Legislation

In a message to Congress in February 1948, President Harry S. Truman asked for Federal civil rights legislation, including antilynching laws. The last such bill to be signed into law, the 1875 Civil Rights Act, had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1883, during a period in which the number of lynchings of African Americans in the South increased sharply. The history of failed attempts to pass Federal antilyching legislation goes back to 1894, when a House bill to create a committee to investigate lynchings failed. In 1922, the House passed a bill by a two-to-one margin to make lynching a Federal crime, but despite President Warren G. Harding’s support, Southern senators filibustered and defeated it. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to support an antilynching bill proposed by the NAACP, fearing that key Southern lawmakers would retaliate and interfere with his New Deal agenda. In the following testimony to a House subcommittee in 1949, representatives of a Japanese American antidiscrimination league and the NAACP argued the need for Federal civil rights action. None of the bills under consideration by the subcommittee passed. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction in 1957, but only the 1964 Civil Rights Act began to implement Federal laws and enforcement powers.


Mr. MASAOKA. I would like to say at the outset my principal reason for appearing before your committee is to try to indicate simply that there are many other minority groups in the United States that are concerned with this type of legislation other than the Negroes and the Jews. For example, my own group, which, although relatively small, perhaps suffered as much persecution during the last war as any other group in our history.

As you gentlemen are well aware, because the House took cognizance of our position during the last war without trial or hearing, 110,000 human beings, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, were summarily removed from California and made Government wards and placed in concentration camps.

We believe had there been legislation of this type on the books, had there been the type of commissions provided for under title I of Mr. Celler’s bill, that evacuation would not have taken place.

We believe, for example, that if, within the executive department of the Government, there had been a civil rights commission, that civil rights commission would have made an on-the-spot investigation of the facts relating to persons of Japanese ancestry, and then because the executive department would have had the real facts, the real knowledge, they would have been in a better position to inform the President, the Justice Department, and so forth, as to our loyalty and as to our allegiance. Had there been a strong, active, aggressive civil rights section in the Justice Department, we are confident over a long period of time they could have investigated the facts and would have been able to reveal those facts to the Congress and the President, and moreover, they would have been able to explode the myths regarding sabotage at Pearl Harbor; myths which, in a large measure, were responsible for creating the hysteria which caused our evacuation.

Finally, had there been a joint congressional committee able to go out to California and the west coast and investigate the real facts, we believe that Congress would not have passed the enabling legislation which resulted in our incarceration.

Thus, from our own experience, we believe that it would be very helpful.

As to the other facets regarding immunity from various types of searches and seizures and lynchings, again I would like to point out that we persons of Japanese ancestry know, because of our own experience, what it means to have local law enforcement break down; to have local justice meted out simply on a local basis because of prejudices.

We recall very specifically the case of Sergeant Cosma Sakamoto, a bemedaled veteran of World War II, who, during the invasion of Guadalcanal was seriously injured. He was returned to the United States, and while still wearing the uniform of the United States Army, he attempted to return to his home. Parties unknown fired upon him, even though he wore the uniform of the United States. Parties unknown burned down his home. Nothing was done by the local police officials or anyone else in that community to apprehend the criminals. Not only that, a little later on, hoodlums jumped a number of Japanese-American war veterans hospitalized at a United States Army hospital. When the hoodlums were caught they confessed, but the local jury said, “Well, they are just Japs,” and nothing was done about it.

We believe, therefore, from our own experience, as well as from the experience of the Negroes and the Jews and the other minorities in this country, that legislation of this type will help to make the enforcement of the law, as well as the meting out of justice, more uniform throughout the United States for the security of all.

Beyond that, I would like to talk briefly on the aspect internationally. Because I am a person of Japanese ancestry I think that I know one of the real motives behind the Japanese propaganda during World War II. Because of the wartime treatment of the Japanese-Americans in this country, Tojo, the Japanese militarist, as well as the German propagandists, were given their most potent weapon in pointing out that the United States was fighting a race war.

We here in the United States, even though we are of Japanese ancestry, volunteered for service in the United States Army in order to break down that lie.

One of the principal reasons for which we fought—and I was one of them with four other brothers—was that here in America all persons, irrespective of their race, color, or creed, or national origin, would be treated as an individual. We volunteered, gentlemen, from behind the barbed wire fences of a concentration camp within which our own Government had placed us, and we volunteered because we had faith in the American way; that we believed when the facts were known America would try in its democratic processes to correct its mistakes. We have found that to be true.

This Congress, as you know, has passed legislation which compensates us in part for the evacuation losses. They have passed other kinds of remedial legislation. We would like to tell that story to the rest of the world, but that story of democracy correcting its own mistakes will not be complete until we have legislation of this type and other civil-rights legislation on our books. . . .


Mr. PERRY. The Negro minority, being the largest in the country, and the most easily discerned, has been the principle victim of inadequate legislation and indifferent enforcement of such laws as touched upon its condition.

Negroes have been lynched with impunity and no law has operated to punish lynchers. We cite the March 1949 report of the Southern Regional Council, an organization of white and colored southerners with headquarters in Atlanta, Ga., which declared: “But it should be remembered that a lynching is only an extreme example of a general lack of regard for the individual. The climate which produces lynchings is one of daily insult, intimidation, and the lesser forms of violence, directed against a whole segment of the population.” The council asserted in this report that a “pattern of violence” exists in the South. For a number of years the association has called for the enactment of a strong antilynching law. We reiterate that demand.

In what ways, aside from lynching, has this pattern of violence operated against Negro citizens? Well, in great numbers they have been denied access to the ballot box through trickery, intimidation, terror, and violence not short of murder. So recently at the last primary election in the State of Georgia in September 1948, Isaac Nixon of Toombs County, was shot down and killed in his home after the polls closed simply because he exercised that day his right to vote. In Montgomery County in the same State of Georgia, D. V. Carter, father of 10 children, was beaten up and driven from his home and the State because he advised his people to vote and carried some of them to the polls on election day. On numerous occasions prior to elections members of the notorious Ku Klux Klan have paraded through areas inhabited by Negroes with the avowed intention of preventing them from voting. Part 2 of title II of H.R. 4682, dealing with protection of the right to political participation, is therefore, an immediate need.

The Negro has suffered not only deprivation of the right to vote through violence, but deprivation of due process in cases involving life and liberty. Last November 20, Robert Mallard was set upon by a mob in Toombs County, Ga., and shot to death in his automobile in the presence of his wife and child. It was said that Mallard was not the “right kind of Negro” and was “too prosperous.” No one has been punished for this crime.

Nineteen days ago at Irwinton, Ga., Caleb Hill was shot to death while in the custody of a law officer and on June 14 two men suspected of his murder were freed by a grand jury on the ground of insufficient evidence. That even so small a part of due process as the arrest of an offender is considered abnormal in the locality is indicated by the comment of Solicitor C. S. Baldwin, who is quoted by the Associated Press as saying: “Most Georgia sheriffs would have shot the Negro instead of taking him to jail.”

It should be noted in passing, in connection with the cases cited above, and with others not here cited, that a new procedure has developed in certain areas in the handling of lynchings and other instances of mob violence. It is now the fashion to make a quick arrest of a suspect or suspects and present the case to the grand jury. More often than not the grand jury refuses to indict. In the cases where it does indict, a trial is held and a speedy acquittal secured.

No one should be deceived into believing that an improvement has taken place over the old days when not even an arrest was made. In those days the law-enforcement officers frequently could truthfully say they were not present. The courts could say a case was not before them. Both could join in denouncing mob action. The present procedure is even more outrageous because it uses the forms of the law to place the stamp of approval on lawlessness and murder.

Violence has flared in the Birmingham, Ala., area in an effort to prevent Negroes from buying and occupying homes. Dynamite has been used freely, and mobs have threatened further violence. Having become emboldened by their attacks upon Negroes, masked mobs have now turned to threatening and attacking whites, including white women. They have addressed themselves to the regulation of marital affairs, the care of the home and children, to private associations between individuals, and to the guests one may invite into one’s home. In free America our citizens, both black and white, are subject to the whims and brutalities of storm troopers. All this and no authority, Federal or State, seemingly willing or able to call a halt.

It is glaringly evident, therefore, that part 1 of title II of H.R. 4682 is a necessity if law and order and the rights of individuals are to be preserved.

With respect to part 3 of title II, it is well known that Negro citizens for many years have had to accept humiliating and discriminatory second-class travel in interstate movement while paying first-class fare. The key to this inequality and robbery has been segregation, for inherent in segregation is discrimination. The myth in the phrase “separate but equal” has long ago been exposed. There can be no equality with segregation in the services and treatment of the citizen by the Nation or any subdivision thereof.

It may be asked, as it has been asked before, why the Federal Government should act in these matters. Why not leave the guaranty of civil rights to the several States? The inquiry deserves an answer.

First, Americans are citizens both of the United States and the States in which they happen to reside. As United States citizens they have certain rights which may not be denied or abridged. By their adherence to the Constitution, the several States are obligated to secure to the citizens within their borders the rights and privileges of dual citizenship. If any State fails in this duty, the rights of the United States citizens must be protected by the Government of the United States.

We cannot have nullification as an entrenched policy or we will have in truth no union. Thus, the States which deny or abridge the rights of citizens, or aid and abet denial or abridgement by means of studied and long-standing indifference or neglect, and which oppose the entrance of the Federal Government to correct the evils, are in reality seceding from the United States and setting up a state of their own. This cannot be tolerated.

Second, certain of the States have demonstrated over a period of a half century that they are either unable or unwilling to guarantee civil rights to all citizens, without distinction as to race, color, religion, or national origin. How much longer will these millions of mistreated citizens have to wait? After 50 years a group of Southerners—not New Yorkers—asserts in this year of 1949 that a “pattern of violence” exists in the South. Shall we wait another 50 years in order to be sure that the States will not act? Surely not.

In his Lincoln Memorial speech in June 1947, President Truman declared:

We cannot wait another decade or another generation to remedy these evils. We must work as never before to cure them now . . . we can no longer afford the luxury of a leisurely attack upon prejudice and discrimination . . . we cannot, any longer, await the growth of a will to action in the slowest State or the most backward community.

The millions who live helplessly in humiliation and fear echo that sentiment.

Third, it is no secret that we are in a contest trying to persuade the peoples of the world that they should follow the democratic way of life rather than the totalitarian path held out to them. This is the task of our Federal Government which has had thrust upon it the leadership of the nations in the postwar world. It is not a simple task at best; with the constantly emerging evidences of totalitarian terrorism within our own State the difficulties are multiplied. If this be democracy, why should any people choose it as a way of life? If they do not choose it, what will become—in the not-too-distant day—of such freedom as we have? Will we have permitted the indulgences, the prejudices and hatreds, the sectional prides, and the myths of supremacy and superiority of the stubborn few to lose for our people the priceless liberties and the shining promise of this great Nation in the Western World? For freedom, as so often has been said, is indivisible. The rights of all must be secured or the rights of none will be secure.

Mr. Truman said again in his 1947 speech:

Our case for democracy should be as strong as we can make it. It should rest upon practical evidence that we have been able to put our own house in order. Our National Government must show the way.

The enactment of an effective antilynching law and the Celler civil-rights bill will help our Government to show the way. . . .

Source: Antilyching and Protection of Civil Rights, Hearings before Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, 81st Congress, 1st and 2d Sessions, June 1949; January 1950. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1950.