By Jeff Hudson
Students at Fred T. Korematsu Elementary School in Davis celebrated the birthday of their school’s namesake with an assembly Friday that honored Korematsu’s long, and sometimes lonely, legal effort to challenge the federal government’s World War II order that relocated more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans in Western states to internment camps.
Korematsu’s effort ultimately was victorious, and he was recognized with the Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1998.
Students sang the Korematsu school song, with its refrain “What can one little person do?” — a reminder that an ordinary individual can make a difference. Korematsu’s advice to young people (“If you have the feeling that something is wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up”) also was posted around the campus.
The Korematsu Day assembly also included student tributes to other social justice heroes, including Nelson Mandela, whose long struggle resulted in the end of apartheid in South Africa; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964; Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up a seat in the “whites only” section of an Alabama bus was a watershed moment in the civil rights movement; Susan B. Anthony, a leader in the women’s suffrage movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s; Marie Curie, whose scientific research was recognized with a Nobel Prize for physics in 1903 and a Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1911; and Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl, now 18, who was shot while on a school bus in 2009 by the Taliban gunman. Malala survived and became a prominent advocate for education and for women, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
The Korematsu Chorus also sang “If I Got My Ticket,” a traditional African-American spiritual, led by chorus director Janie Knudsen, whose three children attended Korematsu Elementary.
The chorus also sang a song called “Gaman” from the currently running Broadway musical “Allegiance,” which tells a story set in a World War II internment camp, as well as the present day. Knudsen contacted the show’s creators in New York and got special permission for the Korematsu Chorus to sing the not-yet-published song as part of the special Korematsu Day observance.
In 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill designating Jan. 30, Korematsu’s birthday, as “the Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution.” And on Friday in Sacramento, Gov. Jerry Brown issued what has become an annual Korematsu Day proclamation, saying “Fred Korematsu was, in the best sense of both words, an ordinary hero.
“A native Californian, born and raised in Oakland and a welder by trade, he simply refused to accept his government’s order to relocate under the brutal and misguided policy of Japanese-American internment during World War II. Korematsu’s staunch determination to be treated like the loyal American citizen he was came to define his life story, in both his decades-long legal battle against internment and his later recognition as a leader in the cause of civil rights,” the governor continued.
“On this 97th anniversary of his birth, we remember him as one who resisted injustice during a dark chapter in our nation’s history, and later worked tirelessly to prevent its repetition.”
Fred T. Korematsu lived from 1919 to 2005. When the Davis school district was planning to open a new elementary school in 2006, a group of parents and community members, including some members of the law school faculty at UC Davis, organized an effort to have the school named in Korematsu’s memory, in recognition of his role in the landmark Korematsu v. United States case, and his stature as a civil rights leader.
Members of the Korematsu family came from the Bay Area to Davis for the school’s dedication.
— Reach Jeff Hudson at email@example.com or 530-747-8055.