By Ryan Levi
Donald Trump is not the first president to issue executive orders that single out specific racial or ethnic groups.
Nearly 75 years ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, allowing for the internment of Japanese-Americans. Then 23-year-old Californian Fred Korematsu refused to get on the bus to go to the camps and took his battle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he ultimately lost.
“I felt I knew I was an American citizen, but with everyone against you, the government against you and no one to help you, I figured it was just a slim chance,” Korematsu told filmmaker Steven Okazaki in 1983 about his decision to resist the order. “But I was going to see what I could do and see what happens.”
Korematsu’s daughter, Karen, had never heard of Japanese internment until one of her friends was giving a book report in her high school social studies class in the 1960s and mentioned the landmark Supreme Court case Korematsu v. United States.
“‘Oh,’ I said to myself, ‘That’s my name,’ and I had 35 pairs turning around looking at me,” Karen said. “And I’m shrugging my shoulders thinking it was some black sheep of the family.”
Her dad had never talked to her about the stand he took against his own government. She went home that night and confronted him about what she had learned.
“He simply said it happened a long time ago and what he thought he did was right and the government was wrong, and I could just see this hurt go over his face,” she said.
Karen, who is now the founder and executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, said her dad never doubted his constitutional rights as an American citizen that he learned about as a student at Oakland’s Castlemont High School.
“Why should he go to a prison camp when there were no charges, there was no day in court, there was no access to an attorney?” Karen said. “All due process of law was completely violated.”
Fred Korematsu was tried and convicted in federal court in 1942 for violating military orders issued under Executive Order 9066, and was taken with his family and placed in the Central Utah War Relocation Center in Topaz, Utah.
Four decades after Korematsu’s arrest, a district court judge in San Francisco formally vacated his conviction. The ruling came in the wake of revelations that the U.S. solicitor general who argued Korematsu v. United States before the Supreme Court had deliberately suppressed FBI reports concluding that Japanese-American citizens posed no security risk.
“It was truly amazing,” Karen said about that day in 1983 when a federal judge overturned her father’s conviction.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Korematsu stood up against the Patriot Act and other attempts to curtail the rights of Arab and Muslim-Americans.
“My father spoke out and said, ‘No, this is wrong, and we need to learn from our lessons of history,'” Karen said.
In 2010, California established January 30 as Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution — the first statewide holiday recognizing an Asian-American. A handful of other states have since done the same.
Ahead of this year’s Fred Korematsu Day, Karen is worried that Americans don’t understand the power of executive orders like the one her father challenged.
“That does not need to be approved by Congress. That’s the power of the executive order,” she said. “So we need to caution people and make them aware that we are in danger of making the same mistakes.”