Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga was sent to Manzanar, a relocation camp in the eastern Sierra, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Democracy needs its heroes.

That’s the lesson I took away from a Los Angeles Times story this week. It’s a tale of bravery and success against almost insurmountable odds. And it tells us a little about patience, too.

The story by Kate Linthicum opens, “Every morning, she climbed the wide marble steps of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga was not trained for this work. She was a homemaker, not a historian. But she had a lifetime of simmering anger and unanswered questions.”

Those questions had to do with the “racial prejudice behind the forced relocation of citizens of Japanese descent after Pearl Harbor.”

The story tells how Herzig-Yoshinaga transformed from a teenage girl whose family was imprisoned in horse stables and later an internment camp, into a woman who did the difficult research work that helped transform a nation’s response to a years-long injustice.

Eventually, her work and that of others led to an official government apology and reparations for those who had been placed in what she calls concentration camps, or gulags.

I’ve written before about Tom Ikeda and Densho, an organization that works to preserve and tell the amazing stories of those—almost every one an American citizen—who were incarcerated.

In case you think that all of that is simply ancient history, you may have missed a remarkable admission from the U.S. Government last month. Neal Katyal, then the Interim Solicitor General, made the striking admission that his Word War II-era predecessor had lied to the Supreme Court on relevant and substantive issues related to the internment. As the story says:

“Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, in an extraordinary admission of misconduct, took to task one of his predecessors for hiding evidence and deceiving the Supreme Court in two of the major cases in its history: the World War II rulings that upheld the detention of more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans.”

“Katyal said Tuesday that Charles Fahy, an appointee of President Franklin Roosevelt, deliberately hid from the court a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence that concluded the Japanese-Americans on the West Coast did not pose a military threat. The report indicated there was no evidence the Japanese-Americans were disloyal, acting as spies or signaling enemy submarines, as some at the time had suggested.”

Tom Ikeda of Densho

Many in the country had posited exactly that for many years. But would the government ever have made such an acknowledgment without steady pressure from people like Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga and groups like Densho? Unlikely.

Recently, I have been reading an article in the journal Western Legal History. That’s a phenomenal volume published by the Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society. The article I’m focused on at the moment tells a little-known history of the treatment of Japanese Americans under martial law in Hawaii during World War II. It is a cautionary tale for any American who prizes civil liberties.

Those who would face injustice head-on and seek to make change will always be a small group. And those of us who hope we would take such action rather than remain silent can take our shot of courage from people like Herzig-Yoshinaga.

Read the whole Los Angeles Times story here.