Korematsu Day event honors Asian Pacific American civil rights ‘heroes’

THE LEGACY OF HEROISM­ — The Fred Korematsu Day Heroes Celebration honored 16 people and groups for their contributions to civil rights on Jan. 27 in San Francisco. photo by Bob Hsiang Photography

THE LEGACY OF HEROISM­ — The Fred Korematsu Day Heroes Celebration honored 16 people and groups for their contributions to civil rights on Jan. 27 in San Francisco. photo by Bob Hsiang Photography

San Francisco celebrated its third annual Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, the first day named after an Asian American in the United States, on Jan. 27 at Herbst Theater in San Francisco. The event celebrates Fred T. Korematsu, who resisted unconstitutional laws that incarcerated nearly 120,000 people of Japanese decent during World War II. The celebration takes place each year, officially on Jan. 30, Korematsu’s birthday.

The Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education, a program of the Asian Law Caucus, sponsored the event, which honored a group of 16 — individuals, as well as groups — for their fight for civil rights. The honorees included Supreme Court litigants Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, Mitsuye Endo and the other wartime incarceration dissenters. The event also honored labor heroes Philip Vera Cruz, Larry Itliong and the National Dollar Stores strikers; “self determination heroes” Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs and Queen Lili‘uokalani of Hawai‘i; “Race in the Courts Heroes” Wong Kim Ark, Bhagat Singh Thind and Mamie Tape; and two World War II groups, the Japanese American veterans and Filipino veterans. Roughly 500 people attended the ceremony this year.

San Francisco native, activist and Hollywood star Danny Glover emceed the event. Jasmine Trias, one of the top three finalists in the third season of American Idol, sang Mariah Carey’s “Hero.” San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee presented the event with a proclamation citing Jan. 27 as Fred Korematsu Heroes Celebration Day. Community members, elected city and state officials also attended the event.

Glover seemed at home at the gathering. “I grew up close to the Japanese American community,” he said. “I played football at George Washington High School with a Japanese quarterback, the linebacker was Chinese and I was on the bench.” The actor, who starred in the “Lethal Weapon” series and “The Color Purple,” also is known for his activism, through which he met Boggs during activist retreats.

The event celebrated each of the 16 honorees through a short introductory video that described each honoree by category.

Fighting Incarceration
First honored were the heroes of the wartime incarceration. Karen Korematsu and Jay Hirabayashi represented their respective fathers, while Serena Hawkins-Schletzbaum and Chani Hawkins-Walker represented their grandfather, Yasui. Wayne Tsutsumi and Wendy Weiner represented their mother, Mitsuye Endo. Hiroshi Kashiwagi, a San Francisco poet and “No-No,” represented the dissenters of the mass incarceration, including the “No-Nos,” draft resisters and renunciants. Fellow dissenters Jimi Yamaichi and Jeb Tanimoto, also attended the event.

“It’s good to feel it was OK and honorable to do what we did,” Kashiwagi said. While there was stigma in being a “No-No,” Kashiwagi said that time has allowed people’s thoughts to change.
“You can’t live with the feelings we had 70 years ago,” he said. “The younger generation … realized that.”

Korematsu, Hirabayashi and Yasui each challenged the government’s unjust orders against Japanese Americans. Their three cases, challenging the curfew and/or forced relocation, eventually went to the Supreme Court, which they each lost and would not be vindicated until the 1980s when the redress movement finally came to a head.

Endo was the only female resister whose case reached the Supreme Court. She was the only one to have the court rule in her favor. Her case effectively ended the government’s mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, according to the Korematsu Institute. While growing up, neither Hirabayashi or Tsutsumi knew their parents were a part of living history. Although Hirabayashi knew his father spent some time in jail, he did now know the impact of his resistance until he learned from a law-student coworker while he was in college.

Workers’ Rights
The event also honored Asian American labor organizers such as the National Dollar Stores strikers of 1938 — one of the longest running strikes in San Francisco’s history — as well as Philip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong, two Filipino labor organizers central to the Delano Grape Strike of 1965.

Representing Sue Ko Lee, one of the Dollar Stores strikers, was her son, Mervyn Lee. “My mother didn’t talk much about what she did. I remember going with her to the picket lines and labor meetings, but I didn’t know exactly what was going on. … I only knew she worked in the garment industry and that she worked with the unions,” he said. It was only when his mother was interviewed by Judy Yung, a professor of Asian American studies at UC Santa Cruz, that Lee learned the extent of his mother’s efforts.

“She got accepted in mainstream society and helped Chinese Americans receive a fair wage and escape the sweatshop environment,” said Lee.
Mabel Fong, one of the Dollar Stores strikers, also attended the ceremony.

Fernando Gapasin, nephew of Vera Cruz, and Johnny Itliong, son of Larry Itliong, attended the ceremony for the two icons of the Delano Grape Strike. Itliong led the Filipino Farm Labor Union in California in spearheading the strike while Vera Cruz led the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. They were joined by Mexican farmworkers during the strike and ultimately led to the creation of the United Farm Workers, which Cesar Chavez led. (Itliong served as the United Farm Workers’ assistant director.) Gapasin and Itliong both said the struggle of Filipino American farmworkers remains unacknowledged in mainstream society.

“When we were young, while all the other adults would be drinking and playing cards, he would talk to us kids about the struggle,” he said. Gapasin carries on his uncle’s legacy and is a union organizer.
Itliong also said he was honored that his father was recognized at the celebration. “My father’s struggle came from a racially induced time. They all have to be recognized, but … the winners write the history and they have left us out,” Itliong said. He added, however, he is currently “winning” in his fight for his father.

Self Determination
The Korematsu Institute also honored Yuri Kochiyama, Queen Lili‘uokalani of Hawai‘i and Grace Lee Boggs, who Glover described as “three incredible women that told us about the struggle for equality.”
“As Grace would have said, ‘We are the leaders we’ve been looking for,’” Glover said, in introducing the women.

Boggs has been active in most of the major civil rights movements of the 20th century. She became involved with the civil rights and Black Power Movement in Detroit with her husband, James Boggs, a black autoworker. According to her profile provided by the Korematsu Institute, the 97-year-old remains in demand as a public speaker. Boggs was unable to attend the ceremony.

Audee Kochiyama-Holman accepted the honor on behalf of her mother, Yuri Kochiyama, who at age 91, is currently living in a nursing home in Berkeley, Calif. Kochiyama became an activist in the 1960s while living in Harlem, according to her video introduction.

The last queen of Hawai‘i was posthumously awarded for her work for the island kingdom. Queen Lili‘uokalani was overthrown by a coalition of American business interests in Hawai‘i in 1893 following the landing of American troops. After a failed loyalist uprising, the queen was arrested and forced to permanently abdicate her throne in 1895. While she passed away in 1917, the introductory video said she is still fondly remembered to this day in Hawai’i. No one from the late queen’s family was able to attend the ceremony.

Fighting in the Courts
Wong Kim Ark, Bhagat Singh Thind and Mamie Tape were honored for fighting for their rights in court.

United States v. Wong Kim Ark was a Supreme Court case that affirmed birthright citizenship. While Ark was a son of Chinese immigrants, after returning to the U.S. from a trip to China, he was denied reentry because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The case remains central to today’s discussions on immigration reform. Gary Wong accepted the award on behalf of his grandfather.

Thind was a student from Punjab state in India. He came to the U.S. in 1913 and enlisted with the U.S. army during World War I, one of a small group of Indians to do so. He applied and received American citizenship three times, but had it taken away twice. The 1923 case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind ruled that, while Indians were considered Caucasian, “Hindus” were “aliens ineligible to citizenship,” despite the fact he was an Indian Sikh. He eventually received his citizenship through his service in the war. His son, David Thind, accepted the award.

“This is an honor long overdue,” said Thind. “My father struggled to gain his citizenship during a time of great bigotry and prejudice.”

Mamie Tape was born in San Francisco in 1876 to two Chinese immigrants. When her parents tried to enroll her into Spring Valley School in 1884, she was turned away. Her parents sued the San Francisco Board of Education and the school’s principal and won her right to attend public school. Her victory was somewhat short lived, however, as San Francisco then created a separate school for Asian children following the case. Alisa Kim attended on behalf of her aunt.

Veterans’ Affairs
Veterans of World War II, the Nisei veterans and the Filipino veterans, were the final group to be honored. The Nisei volunteered to serve in the U.S. army to prove their loyalty while most of their family members were incarcerated in American concentration camps. The 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team fought in Europe while the Military Intelligence Service served in the Pacific.

Asa Hanamoto accepted the honor on behalf of all the service members. Hanamoto was incarcerated with his family at Tule Lake.

“I saw the barbed wire and I thought, ‘how the heck am I gonna get out of here?’” he said. Hanamoto left Tule Lake to pick apples and sugar beets and worked a meat packing plant before he was drafted.

He was training to supplement the 442nd soldiers who were facing heavy casualties in Europe when he was scouted for the MIS because he could speak Japanese.

The U.S. called the Filipino veterans into service to aid as allies. The veterans were promised U.S. citizenship and veterans benefits as a reward. The U.S., however, surrendered the Philippines to Japan in 1942, effectively stranding more than 75,000 Filipino and American soldiers and leaving them to a death march in Bataan. Following the war, while the U.S. awarded veterans benefits to all other allies under the GI Bill of Rights, the Filipino veterans were excluded. It was only in 2009 when a one-time, lump-sum payment was made to certain eligible veterans.

Alberto Villa Delgado Saldajeno accepted the honor on behalf of all World War II Filipino veterans. “I joined in Panay Island as a guerrilla. We paved the way for the Americans to come in,” he told the Nichi Bei Weekly. Despite being promised benefits, Saldajeno had to fight for his right to become a citizen and said he continues to fight for the recognition of all veterans.

“I was honorably discharged and became a citizen later, so I was eligible for the $15,000 payment from the government,” he said. Filipino veterans who were not citizens were given $9,000, but many more were denied. “To those who were not properly processed during the war, they were not on the list and denied payment. They, too, must be recognized,” he said.

Korematsu Day
Ling Woo Liu, director of the Korematsu Institute, said the event stemmed from a goal to create a poster of civil rights heroes.

“A teacher … called us asking ‘where can I find a poster of Asian American heroes?’” she said in her address. “There was none, so we decided to create it.”

Liu said the poster concentrated on the earlier generation of activists who paved the way for future leaders. Some of the heroes proved to be a challenge.

“Tim Huey, our education coordinator, located as many of them as possible to investigate who was still alive and who their descendants are,” said Liu. “It took seven months to find Wong Kim Ark’s family… and our search went as far as Mexico for Min Yasui’s daughter.”

The heroes and their descendants in attendance autographed copies of the poster following the event.

Karen Korematsu, the co-founder of the Korematsu Institute, said the growth in interest in her father as a civil rights icon, and the increasing visibility of Korematsu Day, is unbelievable. In just three years, California, Hawai‘i and Utah have recognized the day at the state level. The governor of Michigan also personally recognized Korematsu as an individual this year.

“There is lots of work to be done to make it happen at a national level,” Korematsu said. “It’s hard to say how much longer. I was thinking the rest of my life, but it might come along sooner.”

Korematsu hopes to see Korematsu Day share the stories of her father and other resisters and for people to learn to stand up for what is right. “I’m very excited that my father’s legacy keeps growing and how it relates to today,” she said. “His stand represents not only Asian Americans, but all Americans.”

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