Our history books are filled with heroic stories showcasing prominent figures such as Dr. King and Malcolm X who helped advance the civil rights movement for Blacks in America. The march from Selma to Montgomery and the streets of Harlem, New York, are all sites directly tied to the equality of mankind, but a lesser-known site in Wyoming would be the backdrop to a civil rebellion that had long-lasting effects. The Heart Mountain Internment Camp is a dark stain in the history of the United States, but it can show us how organized rebellion in the face of adversity drives us to overcome injustice.
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The Heart Mountain Relocation Center Is a Myth
The term “relocation center” is disrespectful and frankly just nonsense. There was a relocation involved, but this carefully selected language is a guise for the casual racism used to help ease the facts about the horrifying conditions behind the scenes.
What happened at the Heart Mountain Internment Camp as well as many other internment camps around the country was wrong. It’s important to remember these events, however, to prevent such atrocities from happening ever again.
Life at the Heart Mountain Internment Camp
The Heart Mountain Internment Camp location is near Cody, WY. This means that for the thousands of prisoners who were forced to live there, conditions were cold and windy in the winter while the summers were endless hot, dry days.
Because of the large influx of prisoners, Heart Mountain Internment Camp would suffer from inadequate healthcare as well as less than ideal educational opportunities for children. Food was provided but the quality was subpar and the dry conditions made it difficult to grow and cultivate crops in the area.
Living quarters were also provided but had no insulation and only cots to sleep on. There were areas for bathing and washing clothes, but they were to be shared among the prisoners. Hot water might’ve been available, but even when it was, it wasn’t hot for long. Prisoners lost most of their things because they were forced to travel lightly and bring only what they could carry in two hands after being stripped from their homes.
There are many reports that indicate prisoners were treated “fairly,” which is an ironic term to use for such a situation. Some prisoners were beaten or killed, however, depending on how they acted under internment. At the end of the day, it may not have been the worst prison in the world, but it still very much was a prison filled with people who did not deserve to be there.
The Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee and Civil Disobedience
The Heart Mountain Japanese internment camp would give birth to a revolution that would extend into other camps as well. America segregated its Japanese citizens out of fear that they were not loyal to our country following the attack on Pearl Harbor. To ensure that the prisoners were loyal, questionnaires were sent throughout the prisons to test them.
At the same time, the U.S. was taking on some pretty heavy casualties. World War II was a gruesome quagmire, and the bodies were starting to stack. The government decided to recruit prisoners that were deemed loyal to fight on the front lines. Many prisoners saw this as an opportunity to prove their loyalty and welcomed the chance to defend their country, but Kiyoshi Okamoto was not one of them.
Kiyoshi Okamoto would go on to found the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee. He was soon joined by Frank Emi and others that would engage in civil disobedience. They refused to answer the questionnaires, didn’t show up for recruitment meetings, and refused to fight in the war. After all, why should they serve in the military for a country that had stripped them of fundamental human rights?
The protestors at the Heart Mountain Camp would begin to be arrested and taken to local jails. Reaching a peak of 106 draft resisters, the committee also inspired more than 200 others in camps around the country. Many would face staunch legal battles, and even resistance from within. Fellow Japanese-Americans who disagreed with the protest would occasionally turn them in. Eventually, President Truman would pardon those involved and release them in December 1947.
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The legacy of the Heart Mountain Fair Play is more complicated than just the surface would lead you to believe. It’s a great show of solidarity and standing up for what you believe in. Okamoto, Emi, and many others challenged the notion of defending a country that wouldn’t provide them with equal footing and put the spotlight on the mistreatment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.
Tour Heart Mountain Wyoming Today
You can visit Heart Mountain today at its original site near Cody, Wyoming, and Powell, Wyoming. Travelers are often surprised at the proximity of Heart Mountain in relation to Yellowstone National Park. While on the premises, you can enjoy many different exhibits and learn a bit of history at this WWII national historic landmark. Each year, there’s also an annual pilgrimage to the site.
It’s a great place to see firsthand the trouble that fear can present to marginalized groups. The Heart Mountain Internment Camp was ahead of its time in helping spark the civil rights conversation for Japanese-Americans and is an important landmark in the history of our country.