Life + Culture

Fred Korematsu Day

On January 30th, we celebrate 'Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution,' in honor of his birthday. Korematsu (是松 豊三郎) is the first Asian American to have a day named after him.

Korematsu was living in California when Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in 1942, stripping American citizens of their legal rights, and allowing their indefinite imprisonment without due process. Thousands of Americans of Japanese descendants were removed from their homes and detained in internment camps (See post: Racial Profiling and the Japanese American Internment). Having broken no laws, hundreds of thousands suffered the undue loss of their freedom and property.

Rather than surrender to military detention, Korematsu went into hiding, only to be captured and arrested several weeks later. He contested his detainment as unconstitutional, but in their 1944 ruling on Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the constitutionality of  Executive Order 9066.

It was later shown that during the course of the proceedings, Solicitor General Charles Fahy suppressed legal documents that stated "there was no evidence Japanese Americans were disloyal, were acting as spies or were signaling enemy submarines." Through it all, white Americans either voiced support for the internment program or simply remained silent. Indeed, the ACLU largely sided with the FDR administration.

Korematsu and his family were eventually sent to the Topaz internment camp, where he had a horse stall for his living quarters. He was forced to work long hours in the labor fields, receiving $12/month. After his release, Korematsu was still strapped with a federal conviction, affecting his ability to get work, even above the racial discrimination faced by his peers.

Having spent his early years as shipyard welder aiding in the defense of the USA, he worked welding water tanks in Utah. He soon learned he was being paid only half of what his white colleges were earning. After asking for equal pay, he was threatened with arrest and was forced to leave his job.

Receiving the
Presidential Medal of Freedom
Four decades after his arrest, Korematsu's conviction was finally vacated. To the judge, he said "According to the Supreme Court decision regarding my case, being an American citizen was not enough. They say you have to look like one, otherwise they say you can’t tell a difference between a loyal and a disloyal American....I would like to see the government admit that they were wrong and do something about it so this will never happen again to any American citizen of any race, creed, or color." He continued, "If anyone should do any pardoning, I should be the one pardoning the government for what they did to the Japanese-American people."

Though his name was cleared as an individual, the 1944 Supreme Court ruling in favor of Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 still stands today. In Korematsu's words, "As long as my record stands in federal court, any American citizen can be held in prison or concentration camps without a trial or a hearing. That is if they look like the enemy of our country."

After September 11, 2001 Korematsu fervently urged the public not treat American Muslims as Japanese Americans had been treated during WWII. He also spoke out against detainments in Guantanamo Bay, maintaining that “full vindication for the Japanese-Americans will arrive only when we learn that, even in times of crisis, we must guard against prejudice and keep uppermost our commitment to law and justice.”

With Rosa Parks
To his death, he maintained “I'll never forget my government treating me like this. And I really hope that this will never happen to anybody else because of the way they look, if they look like the enemy of our country.” He knew that  "No one should ever be locked away simply because they share the same race, ethnicity, or religion as a spy or terrorist. If that principle was not learned from the internment of Japanese Americans, then these are very dangerous times for our democracy."

January 30th is Korematsu's birthday. How will you remember his legacy?

"Don't be afraid to speak up. One person can make a difference, even if it takes forty years." 
- Fred T. Korematsu

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