Densho Digital Archive
Emiko and Chizuko Omori Collection
Title: Ernest Besig Interview
Narrator: Ernest Besig
Interviewers: Chizu Omori (primary), Emiko Omori (secondary)
Location: San Francisco, California
Date: October 1, 1992
Densho ID: denshovh-bernest-01

[Ed. note: Correct spelling of certain names, words and terms used in this interview have not been verified.]

<Begin Segment 1>

EO: Could you get into talking about, sort of, how you got started in the business of being a lawyer?

EB: Being a lawyer? Well, I think some reference was made to the fact that I'm a New Yorker who was born near Albany, and raised around New Jersey. And finally went to school at Cornell University where I got my AB and LLD, and then worked for a judge. About a year of him was all I could take, and then went to school -- went to school... went to Rochester, New York, and worked for a firm. And the Depression came along, the stock market broke. And I was a young man, and I decided to come west. I had a sister in Los Angeles, and I lived down there for about five years. During that time I got acquainted with the ACLU. And in fact, became a member of their board. And also got involved with the Imperial Valley problems. There were all sorts of problems that arose in the Imperial Valley, and it would be digressing, I suspect, if I gave you my history of activities in the Imperial Valley, being beaten up and taken to jail and one thing or another.

EO: Okay, could you give us a little bit?

EB: A little bit? Well, a little bit... I was asked to go to the Imperial Valley to see what was going on because there were all sorts of strikes there, difficulties, people weren't allowed to meet on the streets, so I went down there to see what was going on. I was told by those who were leading the strike that they weren't being allowed to hold meetings. And this was right down my alley. I said, "Of course you're entitled to hold a meeting."


EO: Can we just back up a little bit and just tell, describe for the audience, what, who was striking in the Imperial Valley. Who were these people?

EB: These were people who were working in the fields. And some of the left-wingers had gotten in there, and were... I can't remember the name of the woman who married a Japanese here, but she was interested in the things going on in the, going on in the Imperial Valley. The meeting was scheduled and I went there but the growers beat me to it. They had taken over the meeting place and they picked, and I was picked up and taken to jail. And I was kept in jail and I decided I wouldn't leave the jail until the audience had left. And as a matter of fact, a lawyer who lived in the area came around when he discovered I was arrested and he came to my help and I went to his office and stayed in his office all night. And the following morning I took the train to San Diego and then went home.

But on another occasion, Jerry Vorhees, have you ever heard of Jerry Vorhees? I drove in his car to the Imperial Valley. We were going to see a general who Ma Perkins had sent to the Imperial Valley. He, he requested that the ACLU somebody -- send somebody, and I went down there. And I was under his support during the time that I was in the neighborhood. I wasn't allowed to go up to see the people who had been arrested. They were being held incommunicado. Well, nothing was being accomplished, so I was scheduled to return to San Francisco. But I was waiting for the train to come along when this chap came along and just punched me. He was a pugilist. And he said, "That's Bessie. He's a red." In consequence, he bloodied me and I needed a little work from a physician. So a physician was gotten hold of and I was stitched up. So it was a couple of days more before I left the Imperial Valley and returned to San Francisco. On another occasion, I say, Jerry Voorhees was in the lead car and there were five or six cars that had come to --


EO: You were telling us about another incident there with Voorhees.

EB: Voorhees, yes, Voorhees who became a congressman, Jerry Voorhees. A very decent guy. We went down there at the request of the general who had been sent there by Ma Perkins to interview him as to the situation in the Imperial Valley. He was unable to see us, however, because some of the local people had drugged his drink. So he was in no condition to interview us. The growers, however, wanted us out of town. Drove us, forced us back into our cars and we returned to where we came, except that they shot guns on the pavement to move us along, to scare us a bit. And we returned to, I returned to Los Angeles. There was another person who had a big car, they, his... and a beautiful car, an expensive car. They shot at his tires and of course the tires were knocked off. And he was arrested, picked up, some false allegation was made, but he came from a wealthy family and nothing ultimately happened to him. His mother had plenty of money to take care of the automobile. But this is the sort of thing that happened in the Imperial Valley at that time.

EO: Were the strikers people of color, or...?

EB: Well, they were generally Mexicanos. They weren't blacks at that time. They hadn't come, come to that area.

CO: Native Americans or Asians?

EB: I would say they were, they had, we were right near the border. And I would say most of the people were living around there and working in the fields.

EO: Earlier you said it was right up your alley to get involved in this kind of thing. What did you mean by that?

EB: Well, I believe in civil liberties, freedom of speech, freedom of press, religious liberty and so on. And when the right of people to assemble is being denied as they were being denied down there, or to hold a meeting, this is something -- [sneezes] -- that I'm concerned about. Excuse me. And that's what I meant. Isn't that clear?

EO: Now it's clear.

EB: Oh, good.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 1992, 2003 Densho and Emiko Omori. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 2>

EO: So then you've now come, come up to San Francisco.

EB: No, I didn't come up to San Francisco until 1935 and I came up here for thirty days. There was a lumber strike in Eureka, the Holmes-Eureka lumber mill was on strike. And they had goons protecting the place. And three people were killed and eight were wounded and no lawyers in the area would represent the, the people who were arrested. And so I said to the San Francisco group that I would come up for thirty days. But I was having a good time in Los Angeles and I didn't want to stay beyond that period. But then there was a lynching in Yreka, and from Eureka I went over to Yreka and a man who had committed an offense had been seized from the, from the jail and strung up on a tree. He was a bad character, no doubt, and would have been punished properly, but they, some of the locals weren't willing to wait that long. So I'd say, his body was hung up. And that isn't due process under the Constitution. So I protested to Governor Merriam and talked to local people, a priest. I wasn't welcomed, I assure you. And I made public statements. Finally, since we couldn't find out who did it, I left, and I left just in time for another incident, the Holmes-Eureka lumber strike. Not Holmes-Eureka -- I beg your pardon -- the "tar and feather party" at, in Santa Rosa. And there, several people had been seized from their homes and were taken to a hop warehouse. They had helped to organize strikers and they were accused of being left-wingers. They were taken to this hop warehouse, made to kneel down, kiss the American flag, and some material was put on their heads, and then they were run out of town at the head of a mob. As a matter of fact, you can still find the newspaper reports on this subject. They took photographs and ran them in the newspaper up in Santa Rosa. The ACLU, which I was just, I was up here for thirty days, you understand... objected to what had gone up in Santa -- gone on in Santa Rosa and it meant that there'd have to be some legal action. These various incidents resulted in my staying here for not only thirty days but thirty months and over thirty years. And here I am... and here you are to interview me.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 1992, 2003 Densho and Emiko Omori. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

EO: Now, to get into the internment, what was the ACLU position on it?

EB: What was the ACLU position with respect to the exclusion and internment of persons of Japanese ancestry? "Internment" may not quite be proper, but in any case, the ACLU took the position that any person born in the United States and subject to its jurisdiction is a citizen thereon, and is entitled to the same treatment as some other citizen. And if he, the individual behaves himself, then he shouldn't be treated any differently. The Japanese born in the United States fell into that category. Those who were aliens, of course, could be interned as aliens. The law provides for that. But when you're born in the United States, then you should be treated the same as any other citizens. And we took the position that these citizens couldn't be forced out of the community or placed into detention camps of any kind unless they had committed some offense; then they could be arrested. That was our position and we met with a Japanese group... what's the name of the group?


EB: JACL, as my friend Wayne Collins used to call them, the "jackals." And I met with the leadership of that group, several of them, at a YWCA on a street here in San Francisco and I discussed this problem and urged them to oppose the exclusion. But they didn't seem to be particularly interested in the exclusion or discussing it. And nothing came of that meeting. But we undertook to secure a test case. It was very difficult to secure a test case. Finally I learned of the detention of Korematsu. And I went to see him in jail, and told him that the ACLU would undertake to file a test case in his behalf. And we undertook to put up bail for him, but even when we put up bail, they detained him at the local detention place. And I objected to that and I wanted my money back. But when they, once I demanded my money, then they put him in jail again. And I put up the money once again, and they sent him down to Tanforan, which was the detention center. And, in any case, Korematsu became our case, our test case. And Wayne Collins, who was on the ACLU board, he undertook to handle the Korematsu case.

CO: Under the ACLU.

EB: Under the auspices of the ACLU, merely that. Not as his, as a case in his law business.

CO: So, tell us about the progress of that case.

EB: The progress? Well, it went to the, it... there were technicalities involved with the trial of that case. Various issues arose and the issue finally came to the U.S. Supreme Court. Our national office was opposed to our handling of the Korematsu case. And they wanted us to drop, as an organization, to drop representation of Korematsu and file, and to file an argument setting up the right to a fair hearing. That was their limited position, that the Japanese were entitled to a fair hearing. We thought that their rights went beyond a fair hearing. We thought that they had the same rights as every other citizen. And we were faced with some arguments from the national office. Roger Baldwin came out here to try to dissuade us from handling the case and ultimately we were even faced with possible exclusion from the ACLU. But that didn't happen. And as a matter of fact, after this was all over, Roger Baldwin agreed that he had made a mistake. But we continued to handle the Korematsu case, and as you know, the case was decided, unfortunately, 6 to 3 against us.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 1992, 2003 Densho and Emiko Omori. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

CO: You had more, other connections to various aspects of the internment. And so could you tell us about your involvement at Tule Lake and how you happened to get into that situation?

EB: Tule Lake... well, it's about 400 miles from here. And we received some information concerning what was going on at Tule Lake. We had requests from some of the detained people to talk to them, to interview them, and we also received communications from some employees there who were acquainted with our activities, so they contacted us. And we decided that we would advise the people who were residing there, that we would come up to interview them and get all the information to see what assistance they were entitled to and that we would give them. I went up there with a secretary, Alice Adams, who's a friend of mine. And we drove up there in an old car that I had, but it was good enough to go 400 miles. And we met with a man by the name of Bates who ran this place -- Best. Not Bates, Best. And we were assigned a room to sit in. At first they wanted to have some people sitting in there, some guards sitting in there with us. I objected to that. They could sit outside if they wanted, but I had a right to interview these people in private. That was allowed, and this was permitted for two days. After two days, they got a little tired of our presence and they claimed that there had been a killing in the area and we were interfering with that. There was no interference on my part but I was ordered to leave. And a couple of men, guards, accompanied us outside the establishment. And we then got into our car and started to drive off. But we had great difficulty driving because something had been put into the car, some... not... salt had been put in the, in the carburetor. And as a result I had difficulty driving the 400 miles. The car would start and it would go a short distance and then it would seem to come to a bit of a stop and then start again, and so on from the start to the finish in San Francisco. Ultimately we did get back to San Francisco and we, the car was fixed up and we were ready for another adventure.


CO: Tell us about Wayne Collins.

EB: Well, as I said before, Wayne Collins was a member of the board of the ACLU. And when he undertook the Korematsu case, he did that on behalf of the ACLU. When he handled the cases at Tule Lake, some five hundred or five thousand cases... six, six thousand cases. He was handling them out of his office for himself. And he was paid by, through a fund that the Japanese had established. So the ACLU had nothing to do with that.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 1992, 2003 Densho and Emiko Omori. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

EO: To get back to the stockade situation... when you say that you got information about what was happening in Tule Lake that motivated you to go up there, what kind of, what was that information?

EB: We were, I was informed that people were being... when I got up there I was informed that people were being detained in the stockade. Stockade? Stockade was news to me. And this was to the effect that anybody they didn't like, "they" being the administration, didn't like, were put, placed into the stockade. And parents and relatives, children, and so on, were not allowed to visit those who were detained in the stockade. Well, this didn't make any sense to me. If you're accused of some offense, if they had committed some offense, they were entitled to due process of law. So various people came to see us to state their complaints, and Alice Adams took the complaints in shorthand and later she typed her notes and they are the basis for reports that were carried in the ACLU News, the ACLU monthly publication. And you can read 'em today. May I go on to say that complaints were made to not only the local administration, but what is the name of the man who was running all of these camps? Dillon Myer. We presented our complaints to Dillon Myer, and as a result, and with a threat of legal action, this, these, the stockade was dropped, stopped, the people were allowed to leave and to rejoin their families. Wayne Collins went up to the camp and I made a subsequent trip with him, too.

EO: Can you describe when you first arrived there? What were you expecting to see? Or were you surprised at what you saw there? How did the people react?

EB: We're not to allowed to, I wasn't allowed to see the people. I was allowed to see a limited number who had arranged interviews with me, who wanted to see me, but it was just those people I was allowed to see. Otherwise I was allowed to see guards who wanted to keep an eye on me and on Alice Adams. But I wasn't able to get acquainted with the camp itself.

EO: Was it tense? Scary? Were the guards nervous? Were you nervous?

EB: I wasn't nervous. I'm just the foolhardy type who thinks he has certain rights and exerts his rights. They didn't bother me. The fact that they put salt in my, ultimately put salt in my gas tank was a bloody nuisance that I objected to... that made me mad. But I wasn't afraid of anybody. Why should I be afraid?

EO: And you said there were some employees who also got in touch with you. These were non-Japanese employees.

EB: That's right, Caucasians, who were working there, doing clerical work or heavens knows what in the establishment. But my best recollection is that two or three of these individuals got in touch with me.

CO: Were they asking or telling you something?

EB: They were giving me information, and not asking for help for themselves, but telling me about the situation of the detainees.

CO: What did the camp look like? Do you remember?

EB: Since I wasn't in the camp, I can't tell you what it looked like.

CO: So you were... where were you?

EB: I was outside and got into the administration section, which is outside the camp, so to speak. Or which was within the camp, in a sense, but into a section which was remote from where the detainees were.

EO: You mentioned a killing. What was that?

EB: I don't know anything about the killing. I had not, it was supposed to have occurred there, killing occurred, certainly this was something that police action could be undertaken. I'm sorry I can't advise you with respect to the killing. I was told that there had been a killing and that my presence was interfering. I wasn't interfering with any investigation into the killing, or a killing.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 1992, 2003 Densho and Emiko Omori. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

CO: Tell us about the climate in San Francisco in regard to the internment. Was it in the papers a lot?

EB: As a matter of fact, we sought to, to determine the point of view within the ACLU itself. And as a matter of fact, the membership was pretty well split on this issue. Well, that isn't too bad for an issue of this type. When there's a war on, people get a little antsy. But my ACLU news carried statements of the opinions of members. They didn't agree with my position necessarily. Some of them did. But the board fortunately supported my position to intervene on behalf of persons of Japanese ancestry. Now throughout the Bay Area, I would say that generally speaking, people supported the exclusion. That was the general wartime position. And the Hearst papers, of course, took that position. Newspapers generally supported the exclusion. And you may recall, of course, Japanese were not the only ones who were excluded. There were some others that were involved. Anybody who was too friendly with the Japanese was excluded, and I remember a newspaper towards the end of this thing referred somebody to the ACLU because he had been excluded from Alaska and his business was ruined by competitors. And he had had no hearing, but ultimately there was a hearing but there was no, nothing against him. But by the time he got back to Alaska, his business was, as we say, kaput, or damaged or destroyed. There were also some Germans who were not regarded as friendly to the government. And there was some problem with respect to them. Of course, if they were American citizens, as far as I was concerned, and they hadn't committed any unlawful action, they were entitled to protection. But the government didn't always take that position. If they didn't like somebody, they wanted them out. And generally they'd exclude 'em rather than to put 'em in detention because they were not aliens. If they were aliens, of course, they could be detained in the camp.

CO: Of which there were a number.

EB: Oh yes, there were a number of camps. There was one not too far away from here.


EO: But I must say, Mr. Besig, you have been one of the most steadfast people we've ever encountered. It's amazing how you...

EB: Believe in freedom?

EO: Stuck to your principles.

EB: I've always believed in freedom. And I continue to believe in freedom.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 1992, 2003 Densho and Emiko Omori. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 7>

EO: And so the backtracking was this thing between the national ACLU and the San Francisco...

EB: Roger Baldwin and Norman Thomas? Norman Thomas was on our side. Norman Thomas was a socialist, as you know, not a communist, but a socialist. And a very decent person who expressed himself very well. He talked to the Commonwealth Club here in San Francisco. The national office, unfortunately, didn't take the position that Norman Thomas took, opposing the evacuation and detention. I'd say most of the people in the national office did support the exclusion but took a limited position that these people were entitled to hearings. Well, that's no way to treat a person born here. The individual should be treated the same as any other citizen. Anyway, Roger Baldwin didn't support -- excuse me -- my position or the board's position. And we were faced with being kicked out, but it never happened. And as I suggested before, Baldwin apologized for the position he had taken.

CO: Why do you think he took that position at that time?

EB: Well, I... you can readily say that he had a lot of friends in Washington. But he was a man who was a -- he was a bright man, very sharp man, spoke well. He, but he, he knew the president, he knew the members of the cabinet; they were all his friends. I, I can't say that they induced him to take this position; I merely point out the fact that he was, he was, when you went to Washington, you'd always contact him with, occasionally with Dr. Mickeljohn, Alexander Mickeljohn. But what influenced him is a tough question to answer.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 1992, 2003 Densho and Emiko Omori. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 8>

EO: Around the time of Pearl Harbor, you were here in San Francisco?

EB: Oh yes. I was, not here, down on... I was living in another house. It was not 'til 1930 that I moved to this house. 1930? '40, '50, '60... forty years here, pretty good, too.

EO: Was there, the, generally, the public, was there an immediate reaction against the Japanese and Japanese Americans?

EB: Well, of course, we were expecting to be attacked. And we were required to, to close the windows and so we'd put, we'd board up the windows, it seemed silly, but I didn't expect any Japanese to suddenly appear in their... either on board vessels or to travel all the way from Japan. That seemed a little ridiculous. But that was the rule, so you had to abide by it and Besig abided by the rule. And he, he still went out at the proper time, but kept the lights out of his house.

EO: Well, we've been reading that there was, that the public was not necessarily as hysterical about the Japanese and the Japanese Americans in this country. That that came about say a month or so afterwards that the hysteria against us. Because there were groups that suggested we had hearings and that sort of thing, that it wasn't just a mass...

EB: Well, there was a group that was established but it was a rather small group; it was sensible. Generally they were university type of people. But beyond that I don't think that you had any, anything more than concern at the beginning, the possibility of an attack in the area. The concern wasn't about the persons who had been excluded so much as a concern about a possible attack on San Francisco or someplace up and down the coast. The newspapers continued to express their, their concerns and the Hearst papers had pretty venomous statements but I don't think that there, there was any substantial support of the Japanese at the beginning. There were individuals who were being supported for one reason or another. That did happen, but that was very limited, and not general.

<End Segment 8> - Copyright © 1992, 2003 Densho and Emiko Omori. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 9>

EO: This is going way back...

EB: Way back? I go way back.

EO: ...when you met with the JACL, and you said that they were not interested. Can you clarify, I mean, just for our audience, what their position was?

EB: They didn't state their position. They tended to take, to hide, as it were, in silence. I had, I was the one who was urging upon them that they intervene, that they refuse, and if, if something happened in consequence, that force was used, they called out the, established martial law, that would be something else. But it seemed to me that they ought to take the position that they should be treated the same way as any other citizens were treated. But they hid in silence. What they said when they got together again, just themselves, is another matter. But as far as their meeting with me, I wish I could remember the exact place, but I see it visually before me, the YWCA, this was an old YWCA, in an area where the Japanese had lived, too.

EO: Well, there's still one there now.

EB: Is there still one there?

EO: On Sutter Street.

EB: There's one downtown on Sutter Street, but that's not the one I'm talking about. I'm talking about one out further in the Japanese section.

EO: There's one there still.

EB: Is there? For heaven sakes. Well, I don't get around there anymore.

CO: When you heard that the evacuation was actually taking place, that must have upset you.

EB: We, we met with the Southern California branch of the ACLU, we went down there and discussed the issue and our opposition to it, and we were, told them that we were going to get a test case. I think Al Wirin was associated with the ACLU down there at the time, and he got involved in Japanese, some Japanese issues. We took the position, of course, that Southern California ought to do business in southern California, and not here in the north.

CO: Did they go along, or were they opposed to your stand?

EB: Generally they were in support of our position. We never asked them to, to support our position, nor did we undertake to support or object to that position. We didn't go down there to handle cases and we thought they shouldn't come up here to handle cases. That was the position we took.

<End Segment 9> - Copyright © 1992, 2003 Densho and Emiko Omori. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 10>

CO: Well, looking back on it all after all these years, how can we prevent something like this from happening in the future?

EB: The question is: is democracy going to continue in the United States? It's a tough question. And I think there are all kinds of problems here in the U.S. I don't think there's an absolute guarantee of the continuance of democracy. I believe in freedom and I support it, but I don't think that our government is necessarily one that is absolutely established. We have to re-win our freedoms constantly, and that is the only position that I know. Re-win your freedom; it's, you've got to fight for it all the time if you've got to, you're going to retain it.


EO: What do you think were the causes of the exclusion?

EB: The causes of the exclusion? Well, the Pearl Harbor incident is the matter that resulted in the military going overboard. They didn't go overboard as much in Hawaii as they did here in the United States. Things were misrepresented, there were falsehoods. There was no evidence that the Japanese had done anything, that citizens had done anything. But the Pearl Harbor impelled the military to demand protection and protection against Japanese who resided here.

CO: I've always been aware that these decisions were being made in Washington on the East Coast where they really didn't have, they didn't know what life was like out here. They didn't know any of the Japanese Americans. If you want to look at it that way, it's pretty racist. I mean, they just sort of decided this group was dangerous or something.

EB: Well, Japanese, after all, on the Pacific coast, had been engaged in successful businesses, farming businesses. And there, there were Caucasians and others who were opposed to them, who wanted their businesses, they were jealous; it's, that's what helps to create problems. You've got a business, you're making more money than I am, you'd like him out of there. So you seize on this, as they did, up and down the coast.

CO: Some people gained a lot.

EB: Oh, of course. And you remember the Japanese, in many cases, had "friends," so-called, take over their properties, keep it for them, while they were detained. And unfortunately, they forgot all about who owned them, these things, at the end of the war.


CO: Were there attempts to regain some of this lost property or whatnot after the war?

EB: Were there attempts? Yes, there were attempts, but... and there was opposition, too, against Japanese coming in and trying to reestablish themselves. And it seems to me there was... did we put up a thousand dollars reward for some difficulties for any attacks on Japanese? That was a long time ago and I had forgotten that for the moment.

CO: The ACLU did that?

EB: Yeah. Of northern California.

EO: You mean a reward for the apprehension of someone?

EB: Apprehension and prosecution of somebody who was attacking Japanese, returning Japanese.

EO: Did you ever pay it?

EB: You're asking something about forty or fifty years ago, what I was doing with money then. Or the ACLU was. Some of these things are difficult to remember. Do you remember what you did with that $50 or $1,000 you had in your pocket ten years ago?

EO: But this is more. You would have had to go to court.

EB: Well, going to court was a usual practice with us, not unusual at all.

<End Segment 10> - Copyright © 1992, 2003 Densho and Emiko Omori. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 11>

EO: So, can you just describe the climate when people were returning?

EB: It's rather difficult to... these, some of these cases were occurring. It wasn't in San Francisco but it was... what's the name of that town below us?

EO: Salinas?

EB: Not... Salinas. Salinas area. Not Monterey, but Salinas area. I remember that there were problems in that area, but I didn't make a general study of this thing. You may remember that the ACLU was handling many other problems and I was the only one in the office who was handling problems with a part-time secretary.

EO: What were some of the other problems that were going on at that time?

EB: Do you want to read the ACLU News? I will turn over the ACLU News to you and you can read... there's one that I've been, was just questioned about just last week. The case of being, people being arrested, the Okies and the Arkies, who came to California and the people who gave them work were satisfied to have them work, but when the work was over they wanted them to move on, get out of there. And if they didn't move, they'd be arrested and charged with bringing their indigents into the state of California. Children, of course they brought in children. Sometimes relatives, heavens knows what. And we'd look for a test case. There were some twenty cases we checked in, in the valleys here, but we needed one that was available. And while I was in the ACLU office reading a newspaper, I discovered this case up north. We, I wrote the man and he had been released on $1,000 bail for having brought his brother-in-law from Texas who had been on WPA. The brother-in-law came here and the man who was arrested came down here to see me with his wife and kids. They all came in, he had a lot of kids, all of them came to see me. And we said we would take his case to court, and we did take his case to court. And it went up to the U.S. Supreme Court. And as a matter of fact, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in our favor. There's an example that you requested. I suggest if you want more examples, read the ACLU News.

CO: There's no end of civil rights cases.

EB: That's right. I was getting them all the time. But whether it be McCarthyism or whatever the issue, we were generally there. I represented immigration and naturalization cases where there was discrimination; there were all kinds of cases.

EO: It seems that hasn't changed much.

EB: I'm sure it'll continue. I'm sure it'll continue. And you've got to get... the ACLU continues in action, too, throughout the country. And not always doing something I agree with. Most of the time they are, but occasionally I, they're doing something I don't agree with. But a perfectionist is hard to satisfy. [Laughs]

EO: You keep up with it, though.

EB: Well, I'm, I don't stick my nose into the local ACLU. They're running the ACLU in their fashion, and not in Besig's fashion. When I first retired, I expressed my opinions but then I decided after a while that now I should attend to my own business.

<End Segment 11> - Copyright © 1992, 2003 Densho and Emiko Omori. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 12>

EO: What was Wayne Collins like? I mean, who was this man?

EB: He, he was quite a character. I hear from his daughter every Christmas time. And she was going to visit my daughter in Cambridge recently, but unfortunately my daughter wasn't going to be around with her family. And Wayne, Jr., he was fashioned after his father. Wayne could speak more rapidly than any person I know. And his mother, he took after his mother, I knew his mother... she had, she could talk, too. His wife, fortunately, couldn't compete with Wayne, Sr. Wayne was a character. And occasionally I had some problems with him. But no doubt he had problems with me. I had problems with Jr. later on. Jr. got married to a German girl, living over in, in the Berkeley area, I believe, last I heard. He doesn't keep in touch with his sister, either. Wayne, he was a, he was a fighter by nature. He'd had problems, I understand, in his background. One can find them if one is looking for that sort of thing. But what else do you want to know about Wayne?

EO: Well, I'm just... this is probably maybe a question you already answered, but it seems that some people have spirit and a sense of justice and others don't... where that comes from.

EB: He's a fighter. Wayne is a fighter. That's why he belonged to the ACLU. Not as much as Wayne. I'm, I'm a peaceful chap, you must agree. [Laughs] I had to get along with people. I had to get along with my board. I had to get along with Wayne Collins and others on the board. The, what's the name of the man from Berkeley, professor?

EO: Mickeljohn.

EB: No, no, not Mickeljohn. I'm talking about the man who was in the...


EB: No, he had a wife who was a left-winger.

EO: Paul Oppenheimer.

EB: Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was on my board. And Oppenheimer produced problems for me. And then another chap, who was a left-winger.

EO: Clarence?

EO: No, not Clarence. Clarence was a socialist. He was a decent chap, but I had some problems on my board. And, you know, when you're the director, Executive Director, you've got to get along with people. And generally speaking, I did. Until, when a case came up and the case raised a civil liberties issue, that was my, my beef. And I would go after that because I believed in freedom.

EO: See, the difference is here you went to the JACL, who should have been the ones protesting loudest.

EB: That's right. I can't force them to do it.

EO: Why do you suppose, did you get any feeling of why they were the way they were?

EB: Well, I have opinions about the character of these people. They didn't impress me. They were the guys who were looking out for themselves. That was my opinion. Maybe I'm doing them an injustice, but that was my opinion.

<End Segment 12> - Copyright © 1992, 2003 Densho and Emiko Omori. All Rights Reserved.