By Tom LaVenture
AAP staff writer
Washington, D.C. (January 31, 2011) – Californians celebrated the first Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties last Friday, the first time a state has named a day for an Asian American in U.S. history. The day is desig
ned as a school curriculum program to encourage students to learn the Korematsu story and its relevance in the present post-9/11 environment. The first Korematsu Day was celebrated on his birthday, January 30, 2011.
The Korematsu Institute (korematsuinstitute.org), which was instrumental in designing K-12 curriculum to roll out into California classrooms, held a grand celebration in the Bay Area, in addition to various related activities throughout the state.
Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu, who passed away in Marin County, California on March 30, 2005, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Bill Clinton in 1998. This honor came after decades of humiliation for standing up not only for his own rights but those of 120,000 Japanese Americans in the Second World War, and the civil rights of all U.S. citizens.
During World War II, Korematsu refused to be interned and was convicted of violating military orders. His appeal would become the landmark Korematsu v. United States case, where the court held that his arrest and internment were justified in order to protect national security. In 1983, advocates won their case in federal courts with new evidence.
Korematsu is remembered as an ordinary person who took an extraordinary stand in refusing to willingly comply with the Executive Order 9066, the White House order forcing the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans inland from the west coast in 1942 for the duration of the Second World War.
He was born in Oakland, California on January 30, 1919, and at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 was in a relationship with an Italian American woman and did not want to have to leave her, according to Dr. Franklin Odo, Director of Research and Education for National Japanese American Memorial Foundation, and recently retired as Founding Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American program.
His reluctance to evacuate fueled his skepticism about the Presidential order, as he realized that it was not right to force people into the camps solely based on their ethnic and racial background.
“That is still a huge area of contention as to whether they were concentration camps or internment camps or detention camps,” said Odo. “When Korematsu mounted his fight and in his case, his determination was to try to keep from being excluded on the West coast.”
Korematsu was arrested and convicted of defying the government’s order. He appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court in 1944. It ruled against him with the decision of the majority court led by Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone calling the internment justified for “military necessity.”
In their dissenting opinion, Associate Justices’ Frank Murphy, Owen J. Roberts and Robert H. Jackson called the decision the “legalization of racism” and that it has no part in a free, democratic and constitutional society where everyone has a origin from somewhere else and has equal application under the law.
It wasn’t until 1983, that a group of young lawyers, mostly Japanese Americans, discovered key documents that government lawyers had hidden them from the Supreme Court in 1944. They were considered damaging to the case for internment and when presented as new evidence, the legal team re-opened Korematsu’s case on the basis of government misconduct.
In what is now considered a pivotal moment in civil rights history, the Korematsu conviction was overturned in the US District Court of the Northern District of California on November 10, 1983.
“The Justices who wrote dissenting arguments were really eloquent in pointing out that this was a really, really bad decision,” said Odo. “Later on the appeals court vacated that. It didn’t go back up to the Supreme Court so the decision was never technically reversed – it was removed from the courts, or vacated.
Korematsu was vindicated in 1983 but the lesson goes back to WWII when patriotism and supporting the war effort was paramount. Organizations like the Japanese American Citizens League and others were opposed to Korematsu’s legal battle, and shunned internees that refused to enlist until their families were released from the camps.
“So he was very brave because many people in his own community including some of the more prominent leaders were advising him that this was not a good thing to do, because it looked bad for the Japanese Americans to be impeding the war effort and looking like dissidents at the time,” said Odo. “It took a lot of courage for him to go not only against the mainstream American sentiment but against his own community’s leadership. It took decades for him to become vindicated.”
Law schools today use the Korematsu case as part of the curricula on constitutional law issues.
Bruce Yamashita, a former captain in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, delivered the keynote address to the Twin Cities Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League 62nd Chrysanthemum Banquet in November 2009.
He faced a modern day discrimination battle that would change Standard Operating Policy in the U.S. Marines. The five-year battle that would take the collective effort of attorneys, the JACL and other groups was the subject of documentaries and the book, “Fighting Tradition: A Marine’s Journey To Justice” (2003 University of Hawai’i Press).
Born and raised in Hawai’i, Yamashita recalls that as a student at Georgetown University Law School, he was unaware of the Fred Korematsu case and was embarrassed not to know about its landmark impact on legal precedence and discrimination policies.
His uncle fought with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and was awarded the Purple Heart. His American parents were working professionals and quietly helping to build the 50th State.
However, he said until his own ordeal his own view of history had been that the past is over and done with. The fight for Nisei internment reparations was the furthest thing from his mind.
After his own ordeal Yamashita met Korematsu in 2005 and said he was humbled by the man who offered the example about speaking out against injustice no matter what the consequences when you know you are right. He said it does not have to be a landmark case and that we all make choices and actions that contribute to the fight against injustice every day.
“It is really sort of extraordinary how much courage it takes,” said Odo. “Bruce had to go through it himself in fighting the Marine Corp and eventually being vindicated as well. Those guys are real heroes and as much as the ones who won medals in combat.”
The story of Korematsu’s heroism and educational outreach efforts inspired his own family and countless activists to continue in the struggle to demonstrate the importance of building cross-cultural alliances and strengthen the broader civil rights movement.
Karen Korematsu, his daughter, started an effort with a legal team, staff and interns at the Korematsu Institute and the Asian Law Caucus to create a lasting legacy with Korematsu Day.
The team helped formulate a bill (AB 1775) and after a series of committee hurdles passed the California legislature on August 24, 2010. Co-sponsors included Assemblymember Warren Furutani (D – South Los Angeles County) and Assemblymember Marty Block (D – San Diego) of the California legislature.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law on September 23, 2010. The bill established January 30 as Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties. The law encourages all schools across the state to educate students about Korematsu’s struggle for constitutional freedom, especially in times of crisis.
The National Asian Pacific American Bar Association applauded the state’s leadership for adopting a day of remembrance and learning about Korematsu.
“The establishment of the Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties is a truly historic moment,” states Paul O. Hirose, president, NAPABA. “By establishing this day, California recognizes the impact that one person can have in bringing forth equality for an entire community, and the need for all of us to continue to remember and live these lessons today.
“As the child of parents and grandparents who were interned during World War II, I am particularly moved by this, and I hope that all states will one day follow the lead of California and recognize this great man,” he added.
Sally Sudo, chair of the Education Committee of the Twin Cities JACL, also commends the California legislature.
“We hope that other states follow California’s lead in recognizing the significance of Fred Korematsu’s case,” said Sudo. “His story is still relevant today, post-9/11, more than ever. The injustice and loss of civil liberties that the Japanese American community experienced during World War II should never be allowed to happen again to any other groups based on race, ethnicity, religion or other attributes.”
Sudo noted that the Japanese American WWII experience is listed several times in the Minnesota Academic Standards for the Social Studies. To assist teachers, the Twin Cities JACL has a speakers bureau and maintains a collection of curriculum guides, books, oral histories, DVDs, archival photographs and other materials that are available for loan (www.twincitiesjacl.org).