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Los Angeles Center Highlights Difficult Process of Democracy

Democracy is achieved through struggle and sacrifice, as well as collaboration. That is the message of a newly opened center in Los Angeles, which is devoted to preserving democratic ideals. The National Center for the Preservation of Democracy takes a realistic look at American history and the difficult process of advancing freedom.

Louis Caldera, former secretary of the Army and now president of the University of New Mexico, says the newly opened center tells a story about the country's diversity.

"It's an educational center that's helping to ask the question who's the 'we' in 'we the people,' and to really help young people from our increasing diverse country to understand that they're the 'we,' that their stories are part of the fabric of our nation, and that they're called to civic action, public service, civic engagement if we're going to keep our democracy vibrant," he said.

Mr. Caldera, the son of Mexican immigrants, helped dedicate the new center, located in the Japanese American National Museum in the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles. The center's opening exhibition looks at the wide range of ethnic groups that make up the United States. Called "Fighting for Democracy," it tells the story of seven men and women, all members of minority groups who served in the military. There was a Chinese American woman flier, Hazel Ying Lee, and a Hispanic combat surgeon, Hector Garcia. They faced discrimination but still chose to serve their country, fighting in World War II.

Another serviceman featured in the exhibit, Roger Terry, known as "Bill," was a flight instructor and pilot with the famous Tuskegee Airmen, African American flyers who trained at a base in Tuskegee, Alabama.

In 1945, Mr. Terry and some other airmen were transferred to a base called Freeman Field in Indiana. "Well, everything was going all right until we decided we would make sure that we were first-class citizens, and so we had a little demonstration. It was called the Freeman Field mutiny," he said.

It was not really a mutiny, but a protest. The U.S. military at the time was segregated by race. One hundred sixty-two black airmen were arrested for trying to enter whites-only facilities on their base.

Mr. Terry, a second lieutenant, attempted to enter a white officer's club. Military officials let most of the airmen off with a reprimand. But Bill Terry was court-martialed, convicted, and retained a criminal record. That barred him from voting and, after he finished law school, prevented him from working as a lawyer. He carved out a successful career as a criminal investigator, and later served as president of the association of Tuskegee Airmen. Air Force officials finally apologized for their actions in 1995, 50 years after the incident, granting him a pardon and clearing his record.

The exhibit, which tells the story of Mr. Terry and six others, is housed in a one-time Buddhist Temple where Japanese Americans were brought in 1942 to be taken to internment camps. The U.S. government has also apologized for that injustice. But thousands of young Japanese Americans volunteered for war, despite the indignities being suffered by their families. The story of one, George Saito, is featured in the exhibit. He served in the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team, known for its heroism and its heavy losses.

Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, also a veteran of the 442nd, was one of the driving forces behind the creation of this center. Mr. Inouye lost his right arm in combat, and later became the first Japanese American member of Congress and the Senate.

At the center's dedication, Mr. Inouye spoke of the role of educators in teaching the ideals of democracy. He recalls a meeting with a teacher when he was 15 years old, a meeting he says changed his life. The teacher handed him a paper that contained key words from the Declaration of Independence.

"The words of [Thomas] Jefferson: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' That's the first time I had read those words. She looked at me and she said, 'that is the essence of democracy,'" he said.

Irene Hirano, the new center's chief executive, says the facility will work with students and teachers to develop curriculum about practical ways to implement democracy.

One program, already under way, is called Democracy in Action.

"The Democracy in Action program brings young people of diverse backgrounds together for six weeks, asks them to research contemporary issues, pick one and determine how they can make a difference, how they can contribute to solving a problem in our community," she said.

Peggy Wong, who is studying political science at the University of California, Berkeley, took part in the program a few months ago, after finishing high school. The students in her group focused on the homeless. She notes Los Angeles has a much larger homeless population than other U.S. cities.

"That was extremely shocking to me. And I thought that a city like Los Angeles, with such a booming economy, it's so rich, why do we have one of the largest homeless populations in this country? It shouldn't be that way," she said.

The students decided to publicize the problem. They sponsored a benefit concert, collecting food and supplies for homeless residents of downtown Los Angeles.

One speaker at the opening of the new center said democracy has a checkered history, replete with instances of intolerance and discrimination. On the other hand, democracy is a process, with expanded freedoms gained through struggle and sacrifice.

Senator Inouye says even Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence that so inspired him as a student, was himself a slave-owner. The words that Jefferson expressed, Mr. Inouye says, are only gradually being realized.