Norman Mineta was ten when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He was a carefree fourth grader in San Jose, California, who loved baseball, hot dogs, and Cub Scouts. But after the attack, school friends turned on him, calling him the enemy and yelling at him, “Dirty Jap! You bombed Pearl Harbor!”
“I looked like the enemy, so they assumed I was,” said Norm, whose parents had immigrated from Japan. “I burned with shame.”
The FBI arrested Japanese American leaders, imposed a curfew, and restricted travel. People’s businesses were padlocked and their homes searched. “When we learned about the internment camps, it was very frightening,” Norm said.
He and his parents, his older brother, and two of his three older sisters were taken by train to a camp near Heart Mountain, Wyoming, Heart Mountain housed 10,000 internees who lived behind barbed wire in 500 barracks. Their rooms had a single light bulb. No privacy, no closet, no running water.
The Mineta family endured these hardships with grace and dignity. Norm found solace in playing baseball and doing well in school. Late in 1944 the family was sent by the government to Chicago so Norm’s father could teach Japanese to American army officers. They lived in a regular house, but were not free to go home.
That finally happened when the war ended in 1945. They had been gone three long years. Gradually they resumed their former lives. After high school and college, Norm served in the army. He married, fathered two sons, and joined the family insurance business.
Then he was elected mayor of San Jose and later served twenty years in the House of Representatives. While in congress, he and other congressional members sponsored a bill requiring the government to give financial restitution to each living internee. More important, each would receive a letter of apology from the President of the United States.
After long and arduous work, the bill passed, becoming the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Japanese Americans had been exonerated. Only then could healing begin for one of the most egregious civil rights violations in American history.
Norm went on the serve in the cabinets of two presidents. Today this distinguished statesman works actively to tell the story of the interment and to ensure the civil rights of all Americans.
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