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Michigan Law: MLaw's Fred Korematsu Celebration Honors Legacy of Japanese American Civil Rights Leader

By Amy Spooner

The 1944 Supreme Court case Korematsu v. United States—which upheld the constitutionality of interning Fred Korematsu and 120,000 other Japanese Americans during World War II on the grounds of military necessity—remains a blemish on the Court's history because of the practice's racially biased motivations. Although many believe similar actions never could be carried out today, Korematsu's daughter and others warned of the dangers of forgetting the past during the Law School's January 28 Fred Korematsu Recognition.

"My father spent his life advocating for civil rights because he was concerned that what happened to him could happen again," Karen Korematsu told a standing-room-only crowd. "The xenophobia and fear-mongering that exist today show that Korematsu v. United States is even more relevant now than it was in 1944."

Fred Korematsu was arrested in San Francisco in his early 20s for refusing to relocate to an internment camp under President Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, which ultimately sanctioned the internment of all citizens and non-citizens of Japanese ancestry who lived on the West Coast. The Order stemmed from wartime concern that as "members of an enemy race," they would aid Japan's war effort. After his arrest, Korematsu joined his family in a racetrack-cum-detention center in northern California, where they lived in horse stalls. They spent the duration of the war living in the Tanforan Assembly Center and in a Topaz, Utah, facility, facing deplorable conditions and disbelief that they had been imprisoned by their own government.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Korematsu challenged his internment and E.O. 9066 on the grounds that it violated the Fifth Amendment. The case ultimately was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, where he lost in a 6-3 decision. Decades later, lawyers approached Korematsu with documents obtained from the Office of Naval Intelligence through the Freedom of Information Act, indicating that there was no evidence that Japanese Americans were acting as spies or sending signals to enemy submarines—evidence that was suppressed during Korematsu's case. In 1983, Korematsu's conviction was overturned in U.S. District Court when his team of young Japanese American lawyers challenged the earlier decision by filing for a writ of coram nobis. "My father never gave up hope that someday he could reopen his case, but he didn't know how to do it. The lawyers that took on his case pro bono risked their careers because losing Korematsu v. United States again would have tarnished their reputations," Karen Koramatsu told the audience.

But it was a risk that everyone has a responsibility to take, said Ron Aramaki, a fellow panelist and professor of American culture at U-M. "We should never be afraid to stand up for ourselves or for others. People fought for Fred, and then Fred fought for others, even after his conviction was vacated. In so doing, he gave a voice to 120,000 Japanese Americans and freed them from the shame of their internment."

Panelists pointed to recent anti-Muslim rhetoric and demonstrations in southeast Michigan and elsewhere, and the fact that hate crimes against Muslim Americans have increased more than 1,500 percent since September 11, 2001, as warnings that the hysteria that led to the internment of Japanese Americans can swell at any time against any group deemed to be "different."

"We must have racial understanding before we can have racial equality," Karen Korematsu said. "My father believed that education is our greatest weapon. As law students, you have the tools to step up and address human rights violations. No matter what career path you take, you will be equipped to make a difference."

To commemorate his journey as a civil rights activist, the Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution first was observed on January 30, 2011, by the state of California—the first such commemoration for an Asian American in the United States. The Law School's Fred Korematsu Recognition also featured Agustin Arbulu, executive director, Michigan Department of Civil Rights; Roland Hwang, commissioner, Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission; Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, a writer for NBC News Asian America; and Mary Kamidoi, who was interned in Rohwer, Arkansas, during World War II. The event was cosponsored by MLaw's Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, U-M Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, the Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission, and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.