The Korematsu Legacy: “Stand up for what is right!”
Civil rights hero, Fred T. Korematsu once said, “Fear and prejudices against minority communities are too easy to evoke and exaggerate, often to serve the political agendas of those who promote those fears.” His legacy of standing in the face of great injustice, prejudice, and fear-mongering lives on.
By Gisela Perez Kusakawa
More than 75 years has passed since the United States government forcibly removed and wrongfully incarcerated 120,000 U.S. residents of Japanese ancestry. Over 5,000 American babies were born in detention. About 2,000 people died in incarceration from a series of causes including infectious diseases, bad sanitation, or even shooting by guards. Human beings were placed behind barbed wire and reduced to numbers on tags. A young man by the name of Fred T. Korematsu refused to compromise his freedom and to be reduced to just a number.
Today, we commemorate the birthday of civil rights icon Fred T. Korematsu whose legacy for social justice has fundamentally changed our country and continues to be a beacon for social change to this day. Fred was an ordinary man who had extraordinary courage in the face of an executive order that wrongfully incarcerated over 120,000 Japanese Americans. Fred was the plaintiff in a lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, now widely condemned for the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Even in times when it was unpopular to stand up, Fred had the audacity to fight for his rights and the rights of others. His perseverance to make sure that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice fundamentally changed our nation.
Fred was born in Oakland, California on January 30, 1919, He remembered saying the pledge of allegiance in school as a student. He believed in the American principles and ideals that he was taught in school. Fred never imagined that his own government would incarcerate Americans in detention camps simply based on their ethnicity.
However, the unimaginable happened. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which wrongfully incarcerated U.S. residents of Japanese descent. Everyone, including children and the elderly, was rounded up. Walter Yoshiharu’s grandfather was one of the estimated 2,000 people who died in detention. He passed away in Manzanar concentration camp. According to Walter, his grandfather died of a broken heart, and said, “He hadn’t done anything wrong.” Thousands of families and children were traumatized. Families, such as Anna Kaku’s, were forced to live in horse stalls. Students missed their graduation ceremonies. The government shut down shops owned by Japanese Americans. There was no exception to the order. Even families of U.S. servicemen were rounded up and incarcerated.
There were those who resisted the unjust orders. Fred refused to be incarcerated for his ancestry, and resolved to continue to live his life in freedom. When his hometown, San Leandro, California, was declared “off-limits to all people of Japanese ancestry”, Fred remained. For Fred, “[he] was an American citizen, and  had as many rights as anyone else.” However, on May 30, 1942, Fred was arrested on suspicion of having Japanese ancestry. He was then convicted for violating the Civilian Exclusion Order №34, which required all persons of Japanese ancestry to report to assembly centers where they would then be moved to incarceration camps. After being released from jail, Fred was relocated to the Tanforan assembly center which housed 7,800 civilians. There, Fred was forced to live in “a horse stall with a cot, a straw mattress and one light bulb hanging down.” Fred considered incarceration at the camps worse than jail.
Along with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, Fred fought his conviction, and took his case all the way up to the Supreme Court. In Korematsu v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Fred’s imprisonment was constitutional, and that the government action was justified as a military necessity. Justice Frank Murphy denounced the government’s actions in his dissent, writing that the treatment of those of Japanese descent was the “legalization of racism”. This ruling, which essentially would maintain the government’s right to incarcerate American citizens with no due process, would become a dark stain in American history.
Fred would carry the weight of the decision for years to come. His refusal to acquiesce to great injustice was not an easy one. There were those who saw him as a troublemaker, and his criminal record of saying no to Japanese American incarceration continued to follow him for decades. For much of his life, he was shunned rather than honored for his activism and resistance to the widespread incarceration of Japanese Americans.
After 40 years, his case was reopened, and Fred, at the age of 64, once against resisted the injustice of the Japanese American incarceration. A legal team of pro-bono attorneys, including Asian American Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus (at the time the Asian Law Caucus), reopened Fred’s case. Even when offered a pardon that would clear his criminal record, Fred refused and said, “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. Therefore, 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 of any race, creed, or color.” On November 10, 1983, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of the U.S. District Court for the Northern California overturned Fred’s wrongful conviction.
Fred became “a symbol of principled resistance”. In 1998, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Before his passing, Fred warned, “Fear and prejudices against minority communities are too easy to evoke and exaggerate, often to serve the political agendas of those who promote those fears.” Fred’s words echo in the chambers of today’s political environment. His advice to speak up when you feel something is wrong, is more relevant than ever. “If you have the feeling that something is wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up.”
Fred continues to inspire courage and a thirst for justice in the next generation. His torch for social justice lives on with his daughter, Karen Korematsu and a community of advocates. In 2009, Karen established the Fred T. Korematsu Institute to continue her father’s legacy and work to advance racial equity, social justice and human rights for all.
“Speaking up for the civil rights of Asian Americans courses through her bloodline,” said John C. Yang, president and executive director of Advancing Justice | AAJC. “[H]er desire to make the world a better place for everybody is infectious.”
The lessons from the incarceration of Japanese Americans are particularly relevant today. Survivors of Japanese American incarceration carry the trauma from their experiences and the weight of injustices that many are still reconciling with. Their stories remain powerful testaments to the next generation of the need to stand before great injustice to protect vulnerable communities. From the Muslim Ban to the modern-day detention system imprisoning families including children, we must remain vigilant of existing wrongs, stand up in solidarity, and speak up to prevent the past from repeating itself.
This week marked the third anniversary of the first Muslim Ban enacted by President Trump through Executive Order (EO) 13759. Following a nationwide temporary injunction, President Trump revoked the original order and signed EO 13780, dubbed Muslim Ban 2.0, on March 6, 2017. On September 24, 2017, when the time provisions of Muslim Ban 2.0 expired, the president issued Presidential Proclamation 9645, Muslim Ban 3.0. This third iteration is the current Muslim Ban and has been in effect since December 4, 2017 when the Supreme Court allowed the ban to go into full effect while litigation was pending. On June 26, 2018, the Supreme Court upheld the Muslim Ban allowing it to permanently remain in effect indefinitely.
The Muslim Ban has and continues to impact millions including thousands of Muslim Americans, Muslim immigrants and their loved ones. Over 170 million foreign nationals worldwide fall under the Muslim Ban. When the earlier iteration of the Muslim Ban was enacted, Karen and many following the legacy of Fred T. Korematsu decided to stand up against power, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. Karen, along with Jay Hirabayashi and Holly Yasui, submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court opposing the Muslim Ban and cautioned against “the Judiciary turn[ing] a blind eye to broad-scale governmental actions targeting particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups.” Asian Americans Advancing Justice and other organizations joined the amicus brief.
Karen was not afraid to speak up when the Supreme Court simultaneously upheld the Muslim Ban and overturned Korematsu v. United States. Even though the Supreme Court overturned Korematsu, Karen was not happy about the Supreme Court “replac[ing] one injustice with another.” “For the Supreme Court to overrule my father’s Supreme Court case in this way, I feel like, dishonors him and all the civil rights work he did over the years,” said Karen. “I’m glad it can’t be used as a precedent, but other than that…it wasn’t handled in keeping with the great person that my father was. My father was a civil rights hero.”
Speaking at a rally against the Muslim Ban last year, Karen said, “My father never gave up hope that he would see justice. We need to work together and support each other. Don’t be afraid to speak up.”
We must learn from the mistakes of the past, and be vigilant to stand up before present injustices. Like Fred and Karen Korematsu, we must not be afraid to speak up. We must fight for our constitutional rights and that of vulnerable communities.
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As we commemorate the life and legacy of Fred T. Korematsu, please help Korematsu’s legacy and passion for social justice continue at bit.ly/korematsu75. Stand up for what is right. Together, we can stop injustices like Japanese American incarceration and attacks on vulnerable communities from happening again.
Gisela Perez Kusakawa is the NAPABA Law Foundation Fellow at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.