Harry Kingman, the General Secretary of the Berkeley YMCA, worked tirelessly from Stiles Hall on the UC Berkeley campus during World War II to protect Japanese Americans’ rights as American citizens. When Harry and Ruth Kingman watched hundreds of UC Berkeley students and fellow Berkeley residents forcibly evacuated to detention camps across the country, their passion for civil rights led them to lobby on their behalf and propose measures to help Japanese American students. They allied with the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) who strived to prove Japanese loyalty during the war and fight for Civil Rights.
Harry Kingman and the JACL
Harry Kingman led an extraordinary life. Born in Tianjin, China, to American missionaries in 1892, he moved back to California at age 7. A sports star at Pomona College, Kingman was a first baseman and briefly a left-handed pitcher for the New York Yankees during the 1914 Season. His off-season charity work caught the YMCA’s attention. The organization offered Kingman a position in the Berkeley chapter in 1916. Passionate about Christianity and volunteerism, he went on a 6-year missionary trip to China and Japan. He completed a Master’s degree in History while abroad focusing on Sino-Japanese political tension. In 1927, he returned to UC Berkeley’s YMCA headquarters, Stiles Hall and, in 1931, became General Secretary, serving for 36 years alongside his wife, Ruth. Throughout his tenure, he orchestrated various public service efforts: his first major project was fostering Cooperative Student Housing in Berkeley. Faced with a deeply segregated housing system, the cooperatives were instrumental in breaking down racial barriers—a principal goal that would guide his activism throughout Japanese American concentration and internment.
The Japanese American Citizens League began to formed around the time Kingman became General Secretary. Founded in 1929 out of Seattle, the JACL represented second-generation Nisei across the West Coast, who were citizens by birthright under US law. Nisei distinguished themselves from first-generation Issei, who could not become citizens but held most of the societal and economic power in their communities. As more Japanese families settled in the US and started families, the JACL grew, reaching about 20 percent of all Nisei households. Throughout the Great Depression, tensions between Americans of Japanese descent and America at large strained by international turmoil in the ramping up of World War II. The JACL focused on leveraging their status as successful US citizens to fight discrimination and earn citizenship for all Japanese arrivals.
A Test of Loyalty
The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor raised national suspicions about the threat posed by Japanese citizens on US soil. Retaliation began within days and Issei community leaders were swiftly detained. To the Nisei-led JACL, it became clear that their position was increasingly precarious, so they moved quickly to fill the void in leadership left by their arrested elders. The formed the Anti-Axis Committee, a statement of loyalty to their new home (America) and hostility to their original homeland (Imperial Japan). The following statement, issued by Fred Tayama, summarizes their stance:
“The United States is at war with the Axis. We shall do all in our power to help wipe out vicious totalitarian enemies. Every man is either friend or foe. We shall investigate and turn over to the authorities all who by word or act consort with the enemies.”
Proclaiming their unwavering loyalty would not be enough to save them from forced evacuation: two months later, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the detainment of all Japanese on the West coast. The Committee lobbied to no avail; in the American psyche, the Japanese were war enemies. Throughout 1942, they pushed a “100% American” philosophy, urging internees to renounce their Japanese citizenship in favor of their American one. They lobbied the War Department to allow Japanese Americans to enlist in the U.S. Army. They wanted to send the message that all Japanese would be willing to pay the United States’ ultimate price, an irrefutable display of their loyalty.
Harry and Ruth Kingman stood for many of the same goals. Harry Kingman was an avid reader of the Pacific Citizen, a newspaper published by members of the JACL. As Berkeley residents, the couple could not have overlooked the hundreds in their community who were whisked away at the federal government’s hands. Backed by the YMCA, Harry and Ruth Kingman both mirrored the JACL’s statements during the war.
In a series of letters sent between March and June 1943, Harry Kingman wrote directly to John J. McCloy, the Assistant Secretary of War in the United States. Kingman insisted that “there are loyal American citizens of Japanese ancestry,” who could and should be trusted. His wife, Ruth Kingman, fought for the same cause. Ruth became Executive Secretary of the Pacific Coast Committee on American Principles and Fair Play. As Executive Secretary, Ruth Kingman traveled to Washington DC. She met with John J. McCloy, US Senators, and members of the War Relocation Authority that oversaw the evacuation; she lobbied extensively, opposing harsh treatment and pushing for enlistment. The couple’s multi-pronged strategy of support stood out to McCloy, as a striking demonstration of faith during a time when the American public was mostly silent.
Many Japanese detainees were opposed to these measures. Issei felt rejected by the JACL’s politics, which actively painted Japanese citizenship as a reason for suspicion. Nisei often felt that the JACL’s fierce patriotism was excessive—possibly dishonorable or disingenuous—and that enlistment might only serve to compound their humiliation under the U.S. government’s orders. The League’s leaders, sparked tensions within the camps, culminating in physical assaults. Although their wartime contributions were debatably favorable for the Nisei themselves, in the long term, their efforts would lead the way for a more favorable reception of Japanese detainees by the American public after their internment.
Winning Over the Public Back Home
To Harry Kingman, one thing remained clear: “There was never any proven evidence of the necessity of this evacuation.” There was significant proof that internment was unjustified and Kingman and the JACL would work together to prove it to the public.
To do so, they emphasized the heroism of Japanese American soldiers in the war. In 1943, the Army put together the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit comprised entirely of Japanese American volunteers. By 1944, they deployed to Europe to fight on the German front—they were not trusted against Japan. In combat, they were deployed in several key battles, and suffered relatively high casualties; nevertheless, their operations were remarkably successful. President Truman recognized them as the most decorated unit in American military history. The JACL capitalized on this to solidify their case: indeed, these soldiers perfectly embodied their earlier promises of loyalty, patriotism, and self-sacrifice to America. Owing to their exploits, amplified by the JACL’s extensive reporting and outreach, the Regiment became renowned icons of Japanese loyalty and heroism in the post-war period.
Still, the public was not convinced overnight. The progressive evolution of public opinion relied on several key events. The first came in 1944 when Air Force veteran Ben Kuroki gave a speech in San Francisco. Known as the “Most Honorable Son,” he served an exceptional 58 missions against the Axis powers, including some against Japan toward the end of his service. His speech, organized in large part thanks to Ruth Kingman, was the first time a Japanese veteran had shared his firsthand experiences with the American public—and he said exactly what the JACL would have wanted him to. By describing his heroics and his love for service and confidently citing the JACL’s “Japanese American Creed,” the speech perfectly played into the League’s portrayal of Japanese soldiers as loyal servicemen, no remaining meaningful association to their ancestors’ homeland.
This event was a focal point of Ruth Kingman’s ongoing efforts as Executive Secretary of the Pacific Coast Committee on American Principles and Fair Play. Ruth Kingman’s work operated at a more local scale, sowing seeds of tolerance and acceptance among West Coast communities. Most importantly, Kuroki’s speech – which received a 10-minute standing ovation – was widely hailed as a turning point in civilian attitudes toward Japanese Americans. Kingman worked alongside the JACL to foster tangible support for returning detainees among local community leaders. In 1945, Kingman’s Committee organized a Conference on Inter-racial Cooperation in San Francisco, attended by the President of the JACL and Bay Area groups who pledged aid to Japanese communities upon their return.
Resettlement and Civil rights
When internment finally ended in 1945, the JACL and the Kingmans faced their most significant task yet: ensuring that Japanese Americans could successfully settle back into the societies they had been forcibly removed from. As they filtered back into the West Coast, their livelihoods were gone, they were stripped of their pre-war possessions and largely left by the government to fend for themselves.
The Kingmans were particularly worried about university students whose education had been abruptly cut short by their imprisonment. The University of California system lost hundreds of students. As Kingman described them, they were now “tumble-weeds” with highly uncertain futures. To help students regain footing in higher education, they founded the Japanese American Student Relocation Council during the war to help students transfer to other Land Grant schools or reintegrate, operating straight out of Berkeley’s YMCA. On a shoestring budget, they managed to become the leading organization for Japanese American students of the West Coast and Midwest; they received around 26,000 applications from students. It was far from perfect – Kingman recalls a Texas student who “was treated terribly by security people who felt he was dangerous.”
Harry Kingman’s largest wartime project was The Federal Employment Practice Commission (FEPC). Kingman was appointed in 1943 to lead the West Coast regional division, tasked with ensuring that employees across the region were not being unfairly discriminated against because of their race. When returning detainees sought work, the JACL reached out directly to Kingman for help pressuring local workers’ unions. As a result, in 1944-45, Kingman worked with veterans returning to Berkeley to secure them places in the workforce. A standout display of his effectiveness came when a Nisei veteran was rejected from the International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union in Stockton, California. Harry Kingman then personally persuaded Harry Bridges, the well-respected Union leader, to accept their entry. Faced with vehement opposition from the workers, Bridges did not relent, and soon enough Nisei were allowed to start work.
Unfortunately, faced with diminishing support and mounting antagonism from dissidents, the FEPC was disbanded in 1945. However, the Kingmans never abandoned the Japanese cause: as nationwide Civil Rights began to take shape, they worked together to incorporate Japanese Americans’ rights into the growing movement. Specifically, in 1946, Ruth Kingman became the President of the California Council for Civic Unity, which united various minority groups, of which the JACL. This organization served as a platform to lobby against discrimination in general; for the Japanese, the most pressing issues were those of recovering lost property, permitting landownership, and ensuring naturalization for immigrants. For the decades to come, the JACL and the Kingmans would lobby together in DC, fighting to enshrine the Japanese’s rights in the law.
A Lasting Legacy
Initially rejected by racism, nativism, and doubt, the Nisei of the Second World War faced a long and difficult process to bridge the gap between themselves and non-Japanese citizens; the Kingmans and the JACL worked with them. Despite a lack of funding and government support, the Kingmans’ leadership and activism came to be instrumental in making sure that Japanese Americans’ voices were heard among West Coast communities and on the federal level. Although even Nisei sometimes opposed them during the war, the JACL’s dissemination of their “100% American” identity was crucial to changing public opinion about their members. Together, their determination and persuasion in lobbying allowed Japanese Americans to significantly advance their cause for citizenship and equal rights in the years that followed the war. Throughout the internment period and after, the Kingmans, and the JACL’s cooperation proved to be an especially fruitful alliance.
In the years that followed, several anti-discrimination laws were passed. In 1948, President Truman signed the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act, granting small monetary reparations to the returning detainees, albeit extremely limited in scope. In April 1952, all Alien Land Laws forbidding Japanese from owning land were invalidated. In June of that year, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 granted most immigrants from Asia, of which the Japanese, the right to enter the country and receive American citizenship. Subsequently, as part of the Civil rights movement, anti-segregation laws allowed Japanese Americans to integrate American society better. The results of their work, enshrined in anti-discriminatory laws and naturalization laws, persist today as fundamental principles of modern American society.