Students Explore Utah’s History of Internment and Civil Rights

Driving through the desert of Central Utah, it is hard to imagine that only decades ago the barren landscape was the setting for one of the most significant events in U.S. civil rights history.

In 1942, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, thousands of Japanese-American men, women, and children—most of them U.S. citizens—were forcibly relocated to internment camps throughout the country. One of these camps was located at Topaz, just outside of Delta, Utah. Though only active from 1942-1945, the Topaz Internment Camp would eventually hold 11,000 Japanese-Americans.

For BYU Law students, getting beyond the classroom to not only understand, but experience this history, is an integral part of their legal education.

This need to experience history firsthand was Professor Michalyn Steele’s motivation for bringing students to Topaz. “I wanted the students in my Civil Rights class to be able to bear witness to both the tragic consequences of those decisions and of the resilient and hopeful resolve of those who endured those indignities and humiliations.”

As Professor Steele’s students quickly discovered, those indignities and humiliations come into clear focus while visiting Topaz. The “apartments” that housed internees were one room barracks with no insulation or running water. Except for small cots, no furniture was provided to families when they arrived. “Were we the enemy?” many internees asked. “Why did we need to be locked up?”

Feeling trapped, both physically and legally, some Japanese-Americans turned to the courts for recourse. Unfortunately, this proved fruitless as well. In Korematsu v. United States the Supreme Court ruled that the internment of U.S. citizens was constitutional and held that the need to protect against espionage outweighed the individual rights of Japanese-American citizens. “Ultimately,” one internee said, “it felt like ‘liberty and justice for all’ — except us.”


This legal history was especially relevant for the law students because it is closely connected to a controversial Supreme Court decision that was issued this June. In Trump v. Hawaii, commonly called the “Trump Travel Ban” case, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, stated, “Korematsu was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and— to be clear—‘has no place in law under the Constitution’” 585 U.S. __ (quoting Judge Jackson’s original dissent in Korematsu v. United States). However, in her dissenting opinion in Trump v. Hawaii, Justice Sotomayor stated, “This formal repudiation of a shameful precedent is laudable and long overdue. But it does not make the majority’s decision here acceptable or right. By blindly accepting the Government’s misguided invitation to sanction a discriminatory policy motivated by animosity toward a disfavored group, all in the name of a superficial claim of national security, the Court redeploys the same dangerous logic underlying Korematsu and merely replaces one “gravely wrong” decision with another.” 585 U.S. __ (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

“I organized this trip to Topaz because the internment of Japanese-Americans and others is a potent reminder that our society has made choices to compromise liberty in the name of security,” said Professor Steele. “These choices have regrettably stigmatized and fallen hardest on minorities, whether Japanese Americans, Muslim Americans, or immigrants and refugees.”

Although internment was ended and many recognized the error in the decision, Professor Steele encourages her students and others to remember the lessons learned. “It happened in America. It happened in Utah. The only guarantee that nothing like it happens again is for us to get proximate to that history and understand its human toll.”

View more photos of the trip at

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