Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: Fred Korematsu finally gets his day

A PRESIDENTIAL HONOR — Fred Korematsu wearing the Medal of Freedom. The medal, which is the highest award given to civilians in the U.S. , was bestowed on him by President Bill Clinton in 1998. photo by Shirley Nakao, courtesy of the Korematsu Institute

BERKELEY, Calif. — January 30 was the late Fred Korematsu’s birthday. The Oakland, Calif. native and civil rights icon would have turned 92. Often described as “humble,” he probably would have been surprised to find the Rev. Jesse Jackson and several hundred strangers celebrating in his honor. But Jan. 30 was the state of California’s first ever Fred T. Korematsu Day — the first statewide holiday to be named for an Asian American and a day dedicated to the ongoing struggle for civil rights.

The event, hosted by the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education, took place on the UC Berkeley campus. Tickets to the event, held in a 705-seat auditorium, sold out.

Jackson, the keynote speaker, talked of Korematsu’s willingness to suffer for a cause greater than himself.

“His actions spoke volumes about the qualities of his character,” Jackson said, comparing Korematsu to Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks. “She meant to fight back,” he said of Parks, “Fred meant to fight back. Martin Luther King meant to fight back. And they won.”

Jackson emphasized that it was the stand of one ordinary man — not a powerful general, banker or billionaire — that the audience was there to remember. “Fred was one light not to be extinguished.”

Karen Korematsu, Fred Korematsu’s daughter and co-founder of the Korematsu Institute, spoke about carrying on her father’s mission. California Assemblymembers Warren Furutani and Marty Block, co-sponsors of the Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution bill, offered tributes. Spoken word artist Beau Sia performed a piece he wrote for the occasion. And students from elementary and high schools with official Fred T. Korematsu campuses performed a song and speech about Korematsu and the importance of civil rights.

THE KEY TO REDRESS — Fred Korematsu holds up his redress check and a letter from President George H.W. Bush in 1990. photo by Shirley Nakao, courtesy of the Korematsu Institute

A long battle for rights

Korematsu’s is a remarkable story. It begins with a 23-year-old man who had the courage to say “no” to incarceration, and who said “no” all the way to the Supreme Court.

In 1942, Fred Korematsu was arrested on a San Leandro, Calif. street corner. He had been evading Executive Order 9066, fudging his identity with a false name and plastic surgery on his eyes. But the young welder eventually got caught. It was in jail that he first joined forces with American Civil Liberties Union. Together they challenged the constitutionality of his incarceration and the incarceration of the 120,000 persons of Japanese descent held in concentration camps. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. But in December 1944, the court ruled against Korematsu, justifying the executive order in the name of “military necessity.”

Korematsu left the camps and met and married his wife in Michigan, a state that, unlike California, allowed interracial marriage. Eventually Korematsu moved back to the Bay Area, where he faced continued housing and employment discrimination.

But in the 1980s, professor Peter Irons, together with researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, found evidence undermining the government’s claim that persons of Japanese ancestry in America had posed a legitimate security threat. Korematsu partnered with a pro bono legal team, and in 1983, a San Francisco federal court judge cleared the 1944 conviction. But Korematsu’s campaign, that this “never happen again to any American citizen of any race, creed or color,” had only just begun.

Korematsu went on to join the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations. And in 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Korematsu the Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to civilians in the nation. After Sept. 11, he stood up for the rights of Muslims and Muslim Americans, incarcerated without trial by the U.S. government. And he continued to speak at schools and universities across the nation until his death in 2005 at the age of 86.

THE A-TEAM — Korematsu’s lead counsel in 1982-1983, Dale Minami, with Korematsu and 1942-1944 ACLU attorney Ernest Besig. photo by Shirley Nakao, courtesy of the Korematsu Institute

A lesson from Korematsu

The importance of Korematsu’s legacy in the nation’s greater civil rights struggle was reflected both in the multicultural speakers on stage and the multicultural faces in the audience. Many of the messages from speakers were reminders that while one part of the population is denied its civil rights, then none of us is truly free.

Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, who spoke at the event via a video message, related Korematsu’s struggle to that of today’s Muslim Americans. And Jackson reminded the audience that domestic issues, such as gun control, and international issues, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, affect the civil liberties of Americans every day.

Karen Korematsu said she was sad her father never lived to see this day happen but that he would have been very proud to see his mission continued. “The goal was education, win or lose,” she said, referring to the reopening of her father’s case.

Karen Korematsu herself did not learn of her father’s experience until a Sansei junior high classmate talked about the concentration camps and the Korematsu case during a book report. “I thought, ‘Korematsu, that’s not such a common name. I wonder if I’m related to him, if he was some black sheep in the family,’” Karen Korematsu said. When she came home from school, she learned it was her father. Korematsu told his daughter “It happened a long time ago,” but Karen said she could feel his pain.

REMEMBERING AND HONORING PRINCIPLE — Ken Korematsu, Karen Korematsu, Kathryn Korematsu, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Assemblymember Warren Furutani and Ling Woo Liu, at the Korematsu Day Celebration. photo by Vivien Kim Thorp/Nichi Bei Weekly

Fred T. Korematsu Day, signed into law by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in September 2010, aims to make Korematsu’s story a tool in battling prejudice against racial and religious minorities. The holiday is partnered with a curriculum plan for K-12 schools. Created by the Korematsu Institute, the curriculum teaches the story of Korematsu’s fight for justice within the context of a post-9/11 America. Korematsu Day teaching kits, containing videos, posters and lesson plans, were sent out to many California schools in honor of the first holiday.

After the ceremony, Ken Korematsu, Fred Korematsu’s son, said he was especially touched by the student performances. “Before, he would go visit schools,” he said of his father. “Now there are schools named after him.”

For more Fred Korematsu Day celebrations go online to www.nichibei.org/events. The Korematsu Institute’s site is http://korematsuinstitute.org. You can request a teaching kit and download a teaching guide on the site

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