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21 Jan

Honoring Fred T. Korematsu and his legacy as a civil rights hero

On January 30, 2019, which will be his 100th birthday, we will honor Fred T. Korematsu and his legacy as a civil rights hero for all Americans.

About Fred T. Korematsu

Fred Korematsu, seated center, at a 1983 press conference announcing the re-opening of his civil rights case.

Fred Korematsu, seated center, at a 1983 press conference announcing the re-opening of his civil rights case.

Photo Courtesy of the family of Fred T. Korematsu/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Vignettes from “Of Civil Wrongs and Rights” produced by Eric Fournier and clips from the Robert H. Jackson Center. Video

Fred T. Korematsu was an American citizen who took an extraordinary stand. In 1942, at the age of 23, he refused to follow the government’s orders to permanently leave his home along with over 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry up and down the west coast of the U.S. to go to WWII incarceration camps. He was arrested, formally charged and convicted of defying the government’s orders.

After his first court hearing in San Francisco, he was sent to the Presidio Army Base of San Francisco before being transferred to Tanforan Detention Facility. His case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1944, the Supreme Court ruled against him in Korematsu v. United States, arguing that the incarceration was justified due to military necessity.

In 1983, Prof. Peter Irons, a legal historian, together with researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, discovered key documents that government intelligence agencies had hidden from the Supreme Court in 1944. The documents consistently showed that Japanese Americans had committed no acts of treason to justify mass incarceration. With this new evidence, a pro-bono legal team re-opened Korematsu’s 40-year-old case on the basis of government misconduct.

On November 10, 1983, Korematsu’s conviction was overturned in a federal court in SanFrancisco, making it a pivotal moment in civil rights history.CAUTION: Korematsu v. United States remains on the U.S. Supreme Court record. It still stands as “good law” even though it has been discredited. Elected officials are able to sight this in times of war or national stress.In January 1998, Korematsu received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

After 9/11, he continued to speak out, filing a number of legal briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of American Muslim inmates being held in U.C. military prisons. Korematsu remained an activist until he passed away at the age of 86 in 2005.In 2010, the state of California passed the Fred Korematsu Day bill, making January 30 the first day in the U.S. named after an Asian American. Korematsu’s growing legacy continues to inspire people of all backgrounds and demonstrates the importance of speaking up to fight injustice.

In New York City, Councilmember Danny Dromm, Fred Korematsu’s daughter Karen Korematsu, various community and national groups as well as other councilmembers worked for almost three years to establish a Korematsu Day here. On December 19, 2017, the New York City Council voted unanimously to establish in perpetuity January 30 as Fred T. Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, uprooting some 120,000 Japanese-Americans – two-thirds of them American citizens – from their homes on the West Coast and forcing them into concentration camps.  Fred Korematsu refused to go. He was arrested, and convicted of violating the Executive Order and related military proclamations. He appealed his conviction first to the Ninth Circuit and then to the Supreme Court. In 1944, the Supreme Court affirmed his conviction, upholding the Executive Order. In 1983, nearly forty years later, the federal court in San Francisco vacated Korematsu’s conviction after evidence was uncovered showing that the government had suppressed evidence that undermined its assertions before the Supreme Court.

While the use of the term “concentration camp” may seem controversial to some, we must not forget that Japanese-Americans incarcerated during World War II were American citizens who were uprooted from their homes, forced to live in remote camps, and were not given due process of law. In fact, President Franklin Roosevelt used the term “concentration camp” to identify the camps while they were in existence.

At one time, this chapter was virtually ignored in American history books. But in the late 1960s, information started to emerge, and outrage accompanied the growing awareness about this dark time.

One of the unexpected actors to emerge in this unfolding drama was a humble individual who challenged the law and executive order that allowed Japanese-Americans to be incarcerated in 1942. His name was Fred Korematsu, and he decided that what he learned about freedom, as an American citizen of Japanese ancestry in San Francisco Bay Area public schools, applied to him as well.

Korematsu was born in 1919 in Oakland to Japanese immigrant parents. According to to an official biography, he initially tried to enlist in the U.S. National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard at the onset of the war, but was turned away due to his ethnicity. He found work as a shipyard welder and was 23 years old when, in 1942, he received his incarceration order.

Refusing to go to a camp, he was arrested and convicted of defying a government order. Korematsu appealed, and eventually his case wound up in the Supreme Court, which in 1944 ruled against him and that the incarceration “was justified due to military necessity.”

Other Japanese Americans who had also fought against incarceration, Gordon Hirabayashi of Washington and Minoru Yasui of Oregon, had also lost in court.

Almost 40 years later, after a legal historian discovered key government documents showing no justification for the mass incarceration, Korematsu’s case was re-opened and, in November 1983, his conviction was overturned. It was a precedent-setting civil right case. Afterward, similar decisions were reached in the Washington and Oregon internment cases.

In 1998, Korematsu received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He remained an activist most of his life, in recent years speaking out against the discrimination of Americans of Middle Eastern descent. He died in 2005.

In 2009, San Francisco’s Asian Law Caucus, along with Karen Korematsu, his daughter, founded the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education. The institute produced this video on Korematsu’s story with a message from Karen Korematsu.

Korematsu was also the subject of an award-winning 2000 documentary, “Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story.”

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