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Wartime internment of Japanese-Americans focus of Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast

LISLE, Ill. (Catholic Explorer) - Imagine destroying old family photographs and tokens of your cultural identity in order to erase your past. Then, imagine being forced to leave your home and business, with only a few days notice, without any real cause—to be treated like a criminal, a traitor, even though you had done nothing wrong.

REMEMBRANCE - Roy Saigo, former president of St. Cloud University in Minnesota, gives the keynote address at the 13th annual Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast. During his talk he recounted his experience being held in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II.

REMEMBRANCE - Roy Saigo, former president of St. Cloud University in Minnesota, gives the keynote address at the 13th annual Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast. During his talk he recounted his experience being held in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II.


Most Americans can imagine this scenario happening in a foreign land, but not here. For Roy Saigo and 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast in 1942, it became their reality when they were forced into large internment camps after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. According to Saigo, 60 percent of the internees held American citizenship; 40 percent were children. Nevertheless, the government considered them a threat to national security.

Saigo, former president of St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, was the keynote speaker Jan. 21 at the 13th Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast co-sponsored by the College of DuPage and Benedictine University.

Family philosophy: ‘Keep going, no matter what’

As a boy, Saigo was forced to leave his home in Sacramento, Calif. Eventually his family was sent to the Gila River relocation center in Arizona, not far from Phoenix. Transported by trains, buses and trucks, many of the people dressed respectfully for travel, Saigo said, not knowing who they would meet at the end of their journey.

“We went without protest or uprising with a philosophy of showing we were good, cooperative and patriotic participants in American society,” he told approximately 500 people gathered for the breakfast in the Krasa Center on the campus of Benedictine University in Lisle.

He said his family took on the motto of “keep going, no matter what.” However, he said many people became disillusioned and lost hope.

Saito described the military-like barracks as having common bathrooms and showers and no privacy. Each person was given one military cot with a straw mattress.

He said the people still worked to create a sense of community, forming schools, social organizations and athletic clubs.

After the family’s release, they still faced discrimination back home. “We were treated like the enemy. We were hated,” he explained.

Speaking for the voiceless

Cynthia Johnson, a co-chair of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. steering committee, said Saito offers a different perspective on discrimination. She said, “His story is just so compelling,” and it needs to be heard.

“Dr. Saito emerged from that experience without bitterness and with a determination to eradicate discrimination every place he found it,” she explained during a telephone interview with the Catholic Explorer before the event. Johnson is a community development specialist and director of the Public Policy Institute at the College of DuPage.

Saito said his wartime experience shaped his belief in fairness. Working at Auburn University in Alabama, he helped ease racial tension, frequently meeting with white and black leaders.

One week before he took over as president of St. Cloud State University, 50 students were arrested by police in riot gear for staging a sit-in against injustice on campus. He said black, Hispanic, American Indian, Jewish and female students all felt victimized to some degree, resulting in numerous class-action lawsuits filed against the school. By the time he left, he said all the lawsuits had been settled.

Saito also made headlines when he petitioned the NCAA to eliminate American Indian imagery in collegiate sports.

“Each of us has a responsibility to speak for those who are voiceless,” he concluded.

During his introduction, College of DuPage President Sunil Chand praised Saito’s leadership. Referring to what others have said, Chand explained Saito is not afraid to make hard decisions, and he shows strong leadership through a willingness to act.

Teach your children well

Also speaking at the breakfast was Leroy Brown who was appointed deputy mayor of Bolingbrook in 2000. Referring to Rev. King’s focus on education, he said, “Our children have an eagerness to learn.” He explained children need models of good behavior—it’s not enough to tell them what to do; they have to be shown. Currently Brown serves on the Bolingbrook finance committee.

Benedictine Abbot Dismas Kalcic credits Rev. King’s work with making the breakfast possible. Speaking with the Explorer after the event, he said, “We probably had somebody from practically everywhere in the world here.”

Abbot Kalcic, chancellor of BU, explained the importance of diversity at the school. He said the Second Vatican Council changed the way Catholics look at different religions. He stressed interreligious dialogue is now predicated on meeting people as friends. Abbot Kalcic also presides over St. Procopius Abbey.

The College of DuPage has co-sponsored the breakfast with the Lisle university for the past 11 years. This year the College of DuPage took the lead in planning the event. Next year the roles will reverse.

Johnson said the event serves as a scholarship fundraiser. Every year, each school awards three scholarships to students demonstrating the values promoted by Rev. King. She said it’s important for each generation to learn about the civil rights movement.

“Dr. King made a very important contribution to the way of life in the United States during the civil rights era, and his legacy continues on,” she said.

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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Catholic Explorer(www.catholicexplorer.com), official newspaper of the Diocese of Joliet, Ill.

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1 - 1 of 1 Comments

  1. Jeanne Drummond
    4 years ago

    It is Dr Saigo not Saito

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