Governor Pat Quinn today proclaimed January 30 “Fred Korematsu Day” across Illinois to honor the civil rights activist whose challenge of the Japanese American internment in World War II became a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case. Illinois is the fourth state to recognize Korematsu, following Hawai’i, California and Utah. It is the first such honorary day named for an Asian American in the United States.
“Fred Korematsu once said, ‘Protest, but not with violence. Don’t be afraid to speak up. One person can make a difference, even if it takes forty years.’ These are words to live by,” Governor Quinn said. “Fred Korematsu was a heroic figure whose tenacity and commitment to making the world a better place for everyone.”
Korematsu was born in Oakland, California on Jan. 30, 1919, attended public schools where he joined the tennis and swim teams, worked in the family nursery and – in 1940 – registered for the draft in hopes of joining the U.S. Navy. Health issues prevented a Navy career but he was hired as a welder in the Navy shipyards in Oakland, a job he lost after the Pearl Harbor attack.
His life changed with the Executive Order by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to “intern” 120,000 Americans of Japanese origin in camps throughout the West Coast. Korematsu refused to go, had plastic surgery to change his appearance and created an alias, “Clyde Sarah.” He was arrested in May 1942 and jailed. When approached by the American Civil Liberties Union, Korematsu agreed to let his case test the constitutionality of the camps. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and Korematsu v. United States became a landmark case.
When President Bill Clinton gave Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, he called Korematsu a quiet, brave American who took an extraordinary stand. President Clinton said, “In the long history of our country’s constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls…today we add the name of Fred Korematsu.”
Korematsu’s courage was hailed by civil rights activists.
“I appreciate Illinois Governor Pat Quinn recognizing my father’s activism and promoting his legacy,” Karen Korematsu, Executive Director of the not-for-profit Fred Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights & Education, said. “My dream is some day to see a federally recognized ‘Fred Korematsu Day’ that would remind us – especially on January 30 – that our civil liberties and the Constitution are afforded to all Americans regardless of race, color and creed.”
“The case of Fred Korematsu is a lesson for all Americans about the fragile nature of individual rights and the danger this can pose to our fundamental belief about equal justice as expressed in our Constitution,” William Yoshino, Midwest Director of the Japanese American Citizens League, said. “During World War II, our nation succumbed to racism and wartime hysteria in detaining and confining all Japanese Americans residing on the West Coast. It was a tragic lesson we must heed when similar situations of national security arise today and in the future.”
When fear – instead of fact – guides government decisions, we all lose,” Ami Gandhi, Executive Director of the South Asian American Policy & Research Institute, said. “Whether it is in the realm of local law enforcement, national security, or immigration, data-driven policies will keep all of us more safe and secure. We thank Governor Quinn and the Japanese American Citizens League for reminding us all to guard against fear and prejudice.”
“Fred Korematsu was a champion of human rights and civil liberties. His bold and noble stand in refusing the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II enshrines him in the same civil rights pantheon as Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez,” Illinois Human Rights Commission Chairman Martin Castro said. “Mr. Korematsu’s struggle against a denial of rights and liberty over 70 years ago remains relevant today to ensure that we not repeat in this century the mistakes of the last.”
In addition to being officially honored by Illinois and three other states, Fred Korematsu is today honored with three different schools in California being named after him. He is also featured in the Oakland, California “Champions for Humanity” sculpture, alongside Dr. King, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi.