Monthly Archives: May 2017

The danger of being Japanese-American in 1942

The Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah, where Fred Korematsu was sent after his arrest (National Archives)

On this day in 1942, a man named Fred Korematsu was walking with his girlfriend down a street in San Leandro, California, when he was stopped by police.  He was arrested for something that, at the time, was illegal: being of Japanese descent on the West Coast of the United States.  Just a few months earlier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had issued Executive Order 9066, which ordered  that all people of Japanese ancestry — even native-born American citizens — on the West Coast of the United States were to be rounded up and put in concentration camps.  120,000 people were removed from their homes and placed in “relocations centers” scattered around the western and central United States.  But Fred Korematsu didn’t report for “relocation.”  And his arrest would spark one of the most infamous Supreme Court decisions in our nation’s history.  Learn more in our film, Korematsu and Civil Liberties.


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The drafting of our Constitution

“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States,” by Howard Chandler Christy (Architect of the Capitol)

230 years ago today, many of the nation’s leading minds met in a sweltering room in the middle of a Philadelphia heat wave to revise a document called The Articles of Confederation.  The Articles had been a big problem.  They left too much power to the states.  Congress, the only branch of the federal government in the Articles, had almost no power over the states.  And as the country fought for independence from Great Britain, that had been disastrous, as the Continental Army struggled to supply itself through a government with no ability to raise funds.

To many delegates — including George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton — revising the Articles didn’t go far enough.  They needed to be scrapped entirely so that something better could take its place, something that created a strong, central government — one with clear, enumerated (but still limited) powers over the states.  So that’s just what they did.  Working in secret over the next three months, the Founders of our country labored over the four pages of parchment that would create the United States Federal Government and underly all of American law from that point forward, the Constitution of the United States.

Learn more about the drafting of this revolutionary document in our film Creating a Constitution.


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Supreme Court rules against North Carolina’s race-based gerrymandering

The Supreme Court struck down gerrymandering in districts 1 & 12 (USGS)

The Supreme Court ruled today in Cooper v. Harris that North Carolina violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment when it redrew two congressional districts based largely on race.  In a 5-3 decision (Justice Neil Gorsuch was not on the Court when the case was argued), the Court ruled that the Republican-controlled state legislature had weighed race too heavily in redrawing district lines.  North Carolina had argued that the new lines were drawn for partisan advantage, or meant to favor Republicans (which the Court has ruled is allowed), and not based on race.  In the majority opinion, Justice Elena Kagan disagreed, writing, “the sorting of voters on the grounds of their race remains suspect even if race is meant to function as a proxy for other (including political) characteristics.”

Learn more about the history of racially-based gerrymandering in our film One Person, One Vote

Brown v. Board of Education and the continuing problem of school segregation

Chief Justice Earl Warren
(Hessler Studio, Washington, D.C..
Harry S. Truman Library & Museum)

63 years ago, on May 17 , 1954, the Supreme Court handed down one of the most monumental opinions in its history, the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  Brown overturned the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which instituted state-sanctioned segregation in the United States for the next half century.   In his unanimous opinion in Brown, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that segregated schools violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”  

Brown has gone down as one of the most important opinions in the history of the Supreme Court.  However, that hasn’t meant that school segregation has ended in America — in fact, recent evidence suggests that the problem is getting worse, not better.

Read the decision in Brown v. Board of Education at the National Archives and learn more about the case in our film, An Independent Judiciary.


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Firing of FBI Director Comey recalls Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre”

Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox (Library of Congress)

“Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.”

–Archibald Cox, in a statement after being fired by President Nixon

Yesterday’s firing of FBI Director James Comey by President Trump — amid an investigation by the FBI of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia — has reminded many of the last time a president fired the person in charge of investigating him.  In 1973, in the middle of the Watergate investigation, President Richard Nixon fired the special prosecutor in charge, Archibald Cox, after Cox subpoenaed Nixon for copies of Oval Office recordings.  Nixon’s Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General resigned in protest, in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”  (Current Attorney General Jeff Sessions supported the decision to fire Comey.)  Public opinion turned against Nixon, as polls following Cox’s firing showed a majority of the country supporting impeachment.  Congress began impeachment proceedings the following year and shortly after Nixon resigned.

Learn more about the Saturday Night Massacre, and the history of legal checks on rulers, in our film Magna Carta and the Constitution.



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The Chinese Immigrants Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

National Archives

This photograph was taken 148 years ago today, when the last spike in the First Transcontinental Railroad was driven at Promontory Point in the Utah Territory.  Not shown are the 10-15,000 Chinese immigrants who made up the majority of the workforce that laid nearly 2,000 miles of tracks, blasted through mountains, and dug the tunnels that joined the east and west coasts of the United States.  Many of the Chinese workers were brought over from China explicitly to work on the railroads.  Hundreds died.  In 1882, 13 years after the railroad was complete, President Chester A. Arthur showed his appreciation by signing the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all Chinese immigration in the U.S.  It would remain in effect until 1943.

On May 10, 1886, 17 years to the day after the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed, Chinese Immigrants won a major victory for civil rights in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, in which the Supreme Court ruled that even though they are not citizens, immigrants are still entitled to equal protection of the law under our Constitution.  Learn more about Yick Wo and Chinese immigration to the U.S. in our film Yick Wo. and the Equal Protection Clause.

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