The first days of World War II evoked the best and worst in Americans, said U.S. civil rights chief Bill Lann Lee.
The country rallied against its Axis enemies but turned on many of its own by imprisoning more then 110,000 Japanese-Americans."It seems beyond comprehension, yet it happened," said Lee, who keynoted Utah's "Day of Remembrance" program Thursday at Cottonwood High School.
The day's events marked the 56th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which led to the wartime incarceration of Americans of Japanese ancestry.
Lee recalled visiting the remains of Topaz Internment Camp earlier in the day. He was awed by its starkness.
"It was as close to the middle of nowhere that I have ever been," said the longtime human-rights lawyer. He recently was appointed the U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights.
Topaz's reluctant residents were locked up because they happened to look like the enemy, "yet, like other Americans, they made the best of a bad situation," Lee said.
Lee added the internment experience rankles his attorney instincts because due process was ignored and loyalty questioned simply because of race.
"Without vigilance, it can happen again," said Lee, recalling his recent horror when gulf war calls were made to round up Americans of Arab descent.
The son of Chinese immigrants, Lee said his family was dealt the blows of prejudice when his father returned from World War II service and was denied an apartment.
"During the war, he felt like an American, when he returned he was denigrated," he said.
Amid the horrors of discrimination, America enjoys a tradition of protecting human rights, Lee said. The abolishment of slavery, the civil rights movement, the redressment of Japanese-American internees and the Persons with Disabilities Act are rich examples.
"We must all invest in each others' civil rights," Lee said.
Lee has been the subject of recent local news after Utah's Sen. Orrin Hatch opposed his civil-rights nomination because of affirmative action views.
Thursday, Lee told the Deseret News that he's enjoyed a good relationship with Hatch in the past.
"We both recognize the importance of enforcing civil rights," said Lee, adding he intends to speak with the senator about civil-rights issues.