Jerry Enomoto came into the world January 24, 1926. He left the world on January 16, 2016. That gave him nearly 90 years to make the world a better place. Which he did.
At the celebration of Jerry Enomoto’s life last Saturday, at a hall donated by local Muslim leader Moe Mohanna, numerous community leaders—including U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui, U.S. Marshal Albert Najera, U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, former California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, former Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully and former colleagues from the Japanese American Citizen League—all told stories about how Jerry and his wife, Dorothy, had changed their lives.
Born in San Francisco, Enomoto was attending Lowell College Preparatory School when his family was shipped out to internment camps, along with 120,000 other Japanese-Americans. In 1943, he graduated as high school valedictorian at Tule Lake War Relocation Center. This high school was noted more for its armed guards, prison walls and barbed wire than for more traditional high school features.
After serving in the United States Army, Enomoto earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UC Berkeley. He then began his career as a counselor at San Quentin Prison. He became the first Asian Pacific Islander to serve as prison warden, the first to serve as head of the State Department of Corrections and the first to serve as U.S. Marshall.
Like Nelson Mandela, who was able to turn his mistreatment into a desire for universal justice instead of revenge, Enomoto worked tirelessly for better treatment for prisoners and for civil rights for all. He served two terms as the head of the Japanese American Citizens League, where he was instrumental in spearheading the successful 1987 legislation requiring redress for the internment of Japanese Americans.
In 1982, he married Dorothy Stevens, an African-American classmate of Martin Luther King Jr. They were both active in numerous civil-rights issues, and they co-founded Sacramento’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Dinner.
At Saturday’s celebration of life, a woman read a different quote from Jerry after each speaker. These quotes demonstrated the scope of his life and the importance of his work. Here are two:
“Having been born and raised in California and having experienced the internment of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry without charges or trial, I can personally testify to what can happen when we are judged by the color of our skin, and the land of our ancestors.”
“Those who take equality for granted can learn a lesson from our experience, which demonstrated how fragile our Constitution can be when there is a failure in political leadership. This is timely today, when we find once again political leaders eager to scapegoat immigrants, legal or illegal, for all the ills of our society.”
After September 11, Enomoto connected the experience of Japanese-Americans in 1942 with the current experiences of Muslim Americans. Enomoto brought his political stature to the task of working to ensure we do not ever have a repeat of the 1942 internments.
Enomoto represented America at its finest. Speaking on behalf on the planet, thank you, Jerry. Thank you. Not only for what you accomplished. But also for showing all of us of how to live a life with love and justice at its core.