JACL, the nation's oldest and largest Asian-American civil rights organization, was founded in 1929 to address issues of discrimination targeted specifically at persons of Japanese ancestry residing in the United States. In California, there were over one hundred statutes that limited the rights of anyone of Japanese ancestry.

Amidst this hostile environment, JACL was established to fight for the civil rights primarily of Japanese Americans but also for the benefit of Chinese Americans and other peoples of color. Although still a small, California-based organization, JACL was one of the few in the 1920s and 1930s willing to challenge the racist policies of the state and federal governments. With limited resources and virtually no experience in politics, JACL set the course for civil rights for persons of Asian ancestry on the West Coast as well as the federal level.

The true test of JACL came when Japan attacked the Pearl Harbor naval base and launched America into World War II. Within hours after the attack, the FBI swooped down on all Japanese communities in the West Coast states and arrested elders identified as leaders, thrusting a young JACL leadership in the difficult position of having to confront a hostile U.S. government whose intent was to exclude and imprison the entire population of people of Japanese ancestry.