January 30 – Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution

Posted on January 30, 2014

Today we honor Fred Korematsu for saying “No.”

These horse stalls were used
for temporary internment.
Of U.S. citizens.
Who had broken no laws.
The United States did a horrifying thing in the wake of the also-horrifying Pearl Harbor attack. Because the U.S. was attacked by Japan, and was then at war with Japan, it rounded up more than 110,000 Japanese Americans – most of them U.S. citizens, many of them people who had never even been to Japan – just in case they were disloyal or Japanese spies. People lost their homes, their businesses, many of their possessions. They were imprisoned in “War Relocation Camps,” more commonly referred to as internment camps.

Eventually, American presidents and governmental commissions decided that the internment was wrong. Eventually, it was decided that the denial of U.S. citizens of their property and their rights was done on the basis of "race prejudice” and “war hysteria” – and internment survivors and their heirs were awarded more than $1.6 billion in reparations.

So let's get back to Fred Korematsu. He was born here in he U.S., in Oakland, California, on this date in 1919. When Pearl Harbor was attacked and war broke out between the U.S. and Japan, Korematsu was rejected by the U.S. Navy because he had stomach ulcers. So he became a welder so he could help with the defense effort by working in a shipyard.

One day he found that he was fired because he was “a Jap,” and therefore couldn't be trusted. Korematsu got another job, but was fired a week later when the owner of the company realized that somebody had hired “a Jap.”

Shortly after losing all employment, the order came that all people “of Japanese descent” report to Assembly Centers so that they could be organized and sent away to camps. Korematsu took the extreme action of having plastic surgery on his eyelids in the hopes of looking like a white man, changing his name, and NOT complying with the order.

But someone recognized him as being Japanese, and Korematsu found himself arrested. The ACLU approached Korematsu and asked if he would stand trial as a test of the legality of the Japanese American internment, and Korematsu agreed. He lost in court, appealed the decision, lost again, and spent most of the war in prison and in an internment camp in Utah. Many people, including many Japanese American people, disdained Korematsu for his opposition to the government. Some of the Japanese Americans had cooperated in hopes that they were proving their loyalty to the U.S. in so doing – and they found Korematsu's opposition threatening to those hopes. So Fred Korematsu felt as alone surrounded by other wronged Japanese Americans as he did in prison.

When the war and the internment were over, Korematsu continued to oppose the very real discrimination against Japanese Americans. And he widened his scope and began to speak out against all racism.

Vindicated at last!

Finally, in 1983, Fred Korematsu's conviction was overturned in court after he gave a stirring and powerful speech as his ending statement. Some people in the courtroom likened that speech to Martin Luther King's famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

In 1998 President Bill Clinton awarded Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S. He also was awarded several other more local honors, including being Grand Marshal of a parade and having an elementary school and a street named after him.

In 2001, after the tragic attack we call 9/11, Korematsu spoke out against U.S. governmental actions against people of Middle Eastern descent. He warned that what happened to his people should never happen to anyone again, and he warned against acting against a race or religion or ethnicity because of fear.

Until his death in 2005, at age 86, Korematsu continued to work on civil rights, serving on the Constitution Project, speaking out, and writing amicus briefs for court cases.

On September 23, 2010, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill that designates today as Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution.

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