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The Pacific Tribue: Fred Korematsu, the Civil Rights Hero You Likely Never Heard About

By Jeff B. White

As you may have noticed, Google changed it’s logo today as a way to honor civil rights hero Fred Korematsu. In 2010, the state of California passed the Fred Korematsu Day bill, making January 30 the first day in the U.S. named after an Asian American. Korematsu’s growing legacy continues to inspire people of all backgrounds and demonstrates the importance of speaking up to fight injustice.

Born in Oakland, California, on January 30, 1919, he was the third of four sons to Japanese immigrant parents. His parents were immigrant business owners in California. Once the war began, Korematsu tried to enlist in the U.S. National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard but was turned away due to his Japanese ancestry. He then trained to become a welder, eventually worked as a shipyard welder later working his way up to foreman. Eventually, he would be fired from this job, again, due to his heritage as an American who happened to be Japanese.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066  authorizing the U.S. military to remove over 120,000 people of Japanese descent, including a large number of American citizens, from their homes and forced them into American prison camps throughout the United States. This was in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese pilots.

Fred Korematsu’s refusal to go to the government’s incarceration camps for Japanese Americans led to his arrest and conviction of defying the government’s order. Korematsu appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court but lost in 1944 when the Supreme Court ruled against him. The Court argued that the incarceration was justified due to military necessity.

In 1983, a legal historian by the name of Prof. Peter Irons teamed with researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga to discover key documents that government intelligence agencies had previously hidden from the Supreme Court in 1944. The documents showed that Japanese Americans had committed no such acts of treason make justifiable the mass incarceration. This evidence was picked up by a pro-bono legal team who re-opened the now 40-year-old case citing government misconduct and the basis for their actions. The Asian Law Caucus, along with others on the legal team saw to it that on November 10, 1983, Korematsu’s conviction was overturned in federal court.

The Asian Law Caucus, along with others on the legal team saw to it that on November 10, 1983, Korematsu’s conviction was overturned in a federal court in San Francisco. This pivotal moment in civil rights history forever changed the battle for the freedom of Japanese immigrants and their families. Throughout the course of his life, Korematsu remained an activist. President Bill Clinton awarded Korematsu with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1998. On March 30, 2005, Mr. Korematsu died of respiratory failure at the age of 86. Hundreds of people packed his memorial service at First Presbyterian Church in Oakland, CA to pay their final respects to a civil rights icon. He is survived by his wife, Kathryn, daughter, Karen, and son, Ken.

A book highlighting Korematsu was released recently titled “Fred Korematsu Speaks Up.” The work written by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi and illustrated by Yutaka Houlette tells the story of a young Korematsu as a red-blooded American boy who loved music and sports. Also, it tells the gripping story of his legal battle and of the legacy he left behind.

With the climate of today’s political strife in areas such as U.S. immigration, some might view it as poetic and even a call to action, of sorts, that today is set aside in California as a day to remember our nation’s treatment of people of foreign descent. It was just this past weekend that a group in the Sunshine state put forth a ballot resolution to secede from the U.S. and become its own sovereign republic. This was done in direct response to Donald Trump’s ban on Muslim immigrants and U.S. citizens born in Muslim nations.