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Fletcher Bowron was my 2nd great grandfather’s nephew (or 1st cousin three times removed). He was also the 2nd longest serving Mayor of Los Angeles — 1938-1953. Although he was a popular Mayor early on — initially credited with removing corruption from the LA police department, obtaining a hundred million dollars from the Federal Housing Authority for the construction of 10,000 housing units, and for beginning early construction for the LA International Airport — his popularity declined by his 4th term due to accusations that he was responsible for high taxes and continued police corruption. In 1952 he lost his reelection bid in the Republican primary.

Most notably however, Bowron was a relentless proponent for the internment of Japanese Americans. In January 1942, Bowron began to call for relocating Japanese Americans away from the coast and putting them to work in farm camps.1 He forced all Los Angeles City employees of Japanese descent to take a leave of absence, his office also embarked on a propaganda campaign to try to control the Japanese American population by encouraging the community to inform on each other and by emphasizing dire consequences for anyone caught committing acts of sabotage. 2

As a former judge, Bowron knew there would be constitutional problems with any mass imprisonment of Americans of Japanese descent. To get around this, Bowron requested that the Los Angeles Bar Association form a committee comprised of bar members and constitutional law professors to study a congressional action he wanted to submit.

Bowron proposed a constitutional amendment that stipulated that anyone holding Dual citizenship with a country that was at war with the United States and descended from immigrants not entitled to U.S. citizenship would be governed by the laws of that foreign country and would not have rights as a U.S. citizen.

Additionally, he proposed that the U.S. government be able to circumvent the Selective Service Act and call these people into non-combat military service, regardless of physical qualification, age or sex. 3

By February of 1942 he was pushing for internment on his radio show, stating:

“There isn’t a shadow of a doubt but that Lincoln, the mild-mannered man whose memory we regard with almost saint-like reverence, would make short work of rounding up the Japanese and putting them where they could do no harm.” He continued by talking about “the people born on American soil who have secret loyalty to the Japanese Emperor.4

As well as the following:

And when the federal government started releasing Japanese Americans from the incarceration camps in 1943, Bowron used his radio program to vehemently oppose their return to Southern California. He felt there could be an outbreak of violence and emphasized that the city could not provide housing or police protection to any returning Japanese Americans. Quoting:

“ I have merely pointed out a legal theory that native-born Japanese never were citizens under a proper construction of the provisions of the United States Constitution. If they never were citizens, nothing could be taken from them and their position is different … (they) are in a class by themselves.”

Listen to a broadcast from the LA City Archive radio below.6

LA City Archive

Only a short time later, within a year of the end of the war, Bowron was already publicly apologizing for the treatment of the Japanese citizens of Los Angeles. At a banquet honoring Nisei veterans Bowron states:

“I have been convinced…the Nisei have been true. And they have come through the ordeal in such a way as to have earned the respect and confidence of their fellow Americans.”

A far cry from an sincere apology, it seems that it is merely a nominal attempt to reconcile his objectification of Japanese Americans. Fletcher Bowron abused his power as a politician by overtly propagandizing the unconstitutional internment of people based on their race. 

Family stories can be uncomfortable, and are as complicated as our country’s history. We should not only acknowledge the roles our ancestors played in this history, we must tell the stories, share the facts, and list the names — so that the process of reconciliation for such histories can, in some cases begin, and in other cases continue.