Last month, we celebrated Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. At that time I recommended five historic sites to visit that represent the difficulty of achieving our ideal of equal rights for all Americans. Next month will be Election Day, and it will be a test as to what kind of people we really are and what kind of image we project to the rest of the world. Do we really concur with Thomas Jefferson that we all have an equal right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Here are three more historic sites that can help you appreciate the challenges of being who we say we are:
1.Manzanar National Historic Site, Independence, Calif.: This is a World War II Japanese-American war relocation center ironically located a few miles south of a town called Independence. Although FDR’s New Deal did so much for so many during the Great Depression, after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, he gave in to the fears of those living on the West Coast. In probably the darkest personal act of his presidency, he signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942.
Ten concentration camps were established to imprison 110,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast. About 80,000 were second generation citizens, and the others were either naturalized citizens or qualified to seek naturalization. These “internment camps” were not Nazi slave labor and extermination camps, but their occupants lost their freedom, homes, professions, businesses, jobs, and their privacy. Each victim’s only “crime” was to have been born of Japanese ancestry – and this happened in the United States of America.
In 1980, Pres. Jimmy Carter appointed a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to investigate the justification of the camps. In 1988, a Democratic-controlled Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act based on the commission’s findings: there being little evidence of disloyalty, the government’s actions were based on “racism, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” A Republican president, Ronald Reagan, signed the bill that authorized $20,000 and a presidential letter of apology to each internment survivor.
Sadly, Donald J. Trump has raised the specter again. Taking advantage of American resentments and fears of terrorism and job loss, he is promising irrational and malicious solutions and fomenting further hatred of Mexicans and Muslims. So far, he hasn’t publicly recommended concentration camps, but he’s come close to it. We know that it can indeed happen here.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, D.C.: A lone statue of FDR in a wheelchair was added after the 1997-opening of his national memorial. Such a statue was omitted from the original design because, for reasons of electability to public office, FDR had attempted to hide his reliance on a wheelchair (he had lost the use of his legs from polio in 1921 – 12 years before running for the presidency). A public outcry from historians and those with disabilities led to this addition to the park in 2001.
FDR’s Social Security Act of 1935 included aid to blind persons and crippled children. In 1938 he founded a non-profit organization, the March of Dimes Foundation, to fight polio – the Roosevelt dime began being issued in 1946 after his death.
When I was growing up in El Dorado, Ark., a frequent patron of the Rialto movie theater was a large man in a wheelchair who somehow got to and from the theater, but he had to stay at the back and at the end of one of the aisles. I always wondered why the management didn’t provide a special accommodation for him. He was one of our forgotten citizens; most others were invisible – unable to get out in public because of all the obstacles: sidewalks, steps, doors, and restrooms were unfriendly.
A Democratic-controlled Congress passed the American Disabilities Act of 1990. Republicans are known for opposing federal spending or regulations that require states or businesses to provide safe working conditions or essential services for the public. Nevertheless, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) got a Republican president, George H. W. Bush, to sign that bill! (Mr. Dole lost the use of his right arm in World War II and found a surprising ally in the former WWII pilot, Mr. Bush – they had fought a bitter primary contest in 1988.)
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was inspired by our 1990 act and went into effect in 2008 in the 20 nations that ratified it. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama signed it, but in spite of encouragement by former senator Dole, Senate Republicans have prevented the 2/3 vote needed for the U. S .to support it.
Mr. Trump insults people based on their appearance, gender, and disabilities. During the primary campaign, he publicly made fun of a disabled journalist. We were lucky to have had that one window of opportunity in 1990. Would a party that rejects the democratic necessity of compromise and also nominates a person like the Donald support a disabilities act today?
- Stonewall Inn National Monument, New York, N.Y.: This is the gay bar that was raided by the NYPD on June 28, 1969, and is the birthplace of the modern Gay Rights Movement. Years before Paddy Chayefsky wrote the screenplay for “Network” (1976) and had Howard Beale say, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” the targets of the police raid responded to their harassment vocally and violently. This was the Stonewall “Riot,” “Uprising,” or “Rebellion.” After Stonewall, movies, television, relatives, and friends began to recognize the existence of homosexuality and same-sex relationships.
LGBT citizens demanded equal rights, but blatant discrimination still advanced in the U.S. Congress and on the state level until public awareness and acceptance began to change: The Pentagon ended “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act; and the Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) ruling recognized same-sex marriage, upending many state constitutional amendments. Once these people who had lived in “closets” for centuries – invisible citizens – decided to come out, they made a lot of progress in a relatively short time.
Unfortunately, opponents of LGBT rights have now created another phantom issue. This one targets transgender citizens. North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature and governor discriminated against them with a “bathroom bill,” resulting in a well-deserved boycott of their state, costing the state and its occupants millions. Regrettably, the Republican-dominated legislature in my home state of Arkansas is promising to embarrass and jeopardize us as well with its own needless discriminatory bathroom bill in 2017.
In fact, in 2015, the Arkansas legislature passed a state law preventing local ordinances that ban discrimination against lesbians, gay, bisexual, or transgender people. Apparently, they don’t want cities like Fayetteville, Ark., or Eureka Springs, Ark., to set a good example. Republican governor Asa Hutchinson allowed the bill to become law without his signature. Also, in 2015, Mike Pence, the running mate of Donald Trump, signed Indiana’s deceitfully-named anti-gay Religious Freedom Restoration Act allowing discrimination against LGBT people based on religious beliefs.
Note: Although we profess a belief in “liberty and justice for all,” it’s our actions that matter. However, the social and cultural changes necessary to attain these goals are often difficult for some Americans to accept. Anne Frank, who was murdered in a Nazi death camp, wrote that “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” American voters have a chance to reflect that sentiment on November 8. The results of the Elections of 2016 will tell our neighbors, at home and abroad, what kind of people we really are.
By David Offutt
A version of this essay was published October 23, 2016, in the El Dorado News-Times as a guest column.