Thanks, George Takei, for the reminder. The Bill of Rights is too important not to teach.
A year ago, during final keynote of the 2020 NCSS national conference, author and actor George Takei shared his experience growing up in what he called an American concentration camp. As a five year old, he and his parents were forced into several different camps during World War II simply because of their racial ethnicity.
As he shared his experiences and connected them to contemporary issues, I flashed back to an earlier History Tech post highlighting the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, FDR’s executive order legalizing the internment of thousands of American citizens like five year old George.
Takei’s session was a good reminder about the power of the Bill of Rights and what can happen when we ignore its principles. As you continue to plan your instruction for the rest of the year, don’t shy away from telling the story of America even when it makes you and your students uncomfortable.
One way to do that? Lean into using primary sources that document the topic – such as Takei’s personal story.
Takei shared a bit about his recent graphic memoir titled They Called Us Enemies. It’s a perfect (and powerful) way to begin a conversation around Executive Order 9066. Use the available teaching resources and discussion guides to hook your kids and get them asking the right sorts of questions.
Another way? Use photographs, like these taken by Dorothea Lange.
You all know photographer Dorothea Lange. If not Dorothea herself, you’ll recognize her famous candid photos taken during the 1930s highlighting the struggles of Americans suffering during the Great Depression. Her iconic Migrant Mother and the series of photos around that image depict the desperation many felt during the period.
Later in 1942, she was hired by the US government to capture images of the relocation of Japanese Americans like Takei and his family who were affected by President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Thousands of American citizens were being stripped of their civil liberties, their businesses, and their homes before being placed in internment camps scattered around the country guarded by machine guns and tanks.
Lange was originally opposed to the idea but accepted the task because she thought “a true record of the evacuation would be valuable in the future.” But after reviewing her photographs and their portrayal of the Japanese American experience, the military became concerned how the images of the internment program would be received by the public.
So government leaders seized the photos for the duration of World War II and deposited them in the National Archives, making them unavailable for viewing. Not until 2006 were the censored pictures finally released.
Lange’s photographs and other documents from the period provide a powerful tool for training students to think historically and to connect past events with contemporary issues. Ansel Adams and other photographers also documented the internment process. Many of the photos taken by Lange and Adams are now available online as well as articles and resources that can be used to create engaging and powerful learning activities.
- Is History Repeating Itself PSA (For starting conversation about connecting past and present)
Then poke around several online resources highlighting Lange’s images and oral histories:
- Once-Censored Photos of the WWII Japanese Internment Camps Are Finally Revealed
My Modern Met
- Executive Order 9066 – which sent my family to a concentration camp – turns 75
- Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange’s photos of camps where Japanese-Americans were incarcerated in WW2
International Business Times
- Dorothea Lange Photos Lead Historians to Japanese Camp Survivors
Browse a variety of resources telling the story:
- When Japanese Americans Were Caged: 75 Years After Executive Order 9066
- 75 Years Ago, the Secretary of the Navy Falsely Blamed Japanese-Americans for Pearl Harbor
- States in US West mark 75th anniversary of internment order
- A look at Japanese internment camps in Arkansas on the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
You can find a variety of teaching tools and lesson plans:
- Class Kits
National Japanese American Historical Society
- Japanese Relocation During World War II
- Japanese American Internment Source Set / Teacher’s Guide
Library of Congress
- Home was a Horse Stall Oral History / Home was a Horse Stall Lesson Activity
The Bill of Rights is too important to put on a shelf. Takei’s story, and those of thousands of others, helps us see how protecting the rights of one five year old ensures the protection of every five year old. Embrace the power of the Bill of Rights and use it to tell everyone’s story.