I had the privilege of speaking at a ceremony held at the Minidoka Relocation Camp in Jerome County on June 13, recognizing the 80-year anniversary of the start of camp construction. The Camp was one of ten established in the western states in 1942 to imprison Japanese Americans who were uprooted from their homes in Hawaii and the West Coast during the Second World War (WWII). Around 13,000 of them, mostly American citizens, were imprisoned at Minidoka. They posed no threat to their country but were rounded up simply because of their race.
The Camp has been designated as the Minidoka National Historic Site (MNHS). It reminds us of a grave racial injustice brought about by hysteria whipped up by irresponsible news outlets and pandering politicians. President Franklin Roosevelt issued the order to incarcerate our fellow Americans. Former Idaho Governor Chase Clark applauded the move. It found strong support among the Idaho population.
An honor roll at the entry to MNHS lists the names of hundreds of young men from the Camp who heroically served their country in the European Theater of WWII, while their families were imprisoned at home. No instances of disloyalty ever surfaced among the incarcerated Japanese Americans. Yet, those who remained in Idaho after the closure of the Camp in 1945 were subjected to ill treatment and racial slurs during the following decades.
A number of Camp survivors, their children and human rights supporters gathered at the June 13 ceremony to recognize this historic wrong and dedicate themselves to preventing anything like it from being perpetrated against any future group of fellow Americans.
This was not an isolated instance of racial injustice in the history of Idaho. Our history is replete with wrongs committed against racial and ethnic minorities, starting with Native Americans and continuing with Chinese miners, African Americans and Hispanics. I learned of the Battle of Bear River in grade school back in the early 1950s, only to learn many years later that it was not a fierce battle between the U.S. Army and Shoshone warriors in 1863, but a deplorable massacre of men, women and children. It is called the worst slaughter of Native Americans in U.S. history.
Nor were we taught of the massacre of 34 Chinese miners in Hells Canyon in 1887, a crime for which nobody was ever held to account. The 1870 census disclosed that 28.5% of Idaho’s population was Chinese. No wonder that it is only around 1% today.
And, these are not problems confined to the distant past. The Ku Klux Klan was strong in Idaho in the 1920s and white supremacists were on the rise in Kootenai County in the early 1980s. After having practically eliminated them by the early 1990s, they have come back in force in recent years, thanks in part to an influx of extremists flowing to Idaho from progressive states in search of a white “redoubt.”
It is essential that Idahoans be made aware of our racial history to understand that we are not above committing wrongs against vulnerable minority groups. Recognizing our faults is not designed to make anyone feel bad, but to acknowledge our mistakes so we don’t repeat them. Let’s not have any more Minidoka camps or other such affronts to human rights.
The regrettable fact is that racism never really dies. Each time enlightened leaders manage to rally our citizens to beat it back, it merely lurks under the surface, awaiting another charismatic demagogue who will fan the flames of hatred for personal gain.