East Bay Times: Local civil rights icon Fred Korematsu gains national attention amid immigration debate

FILE — President Clinton presents Fred Korematsu with a Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House Thursday Jan. 15, 1998. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)

FILE — President Clinton presents Fred Korematsu with a Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House Thursday Jan. 15, 1998. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)

By Chris Treadway

EL CERRITO — The 98th birthday Monday of an East Bay civil rights leader who challenged a federal order imprisoning Japanese-Americans during World War II is a topic of national discussion and the focus of a week of activities at a local middle school.

rep barbara lee tweet.jpg

Oakland native Fred T. Korematsu, whose challenge of Executive Order 9066 was carried to the U.S. Supreme Court, was spotlighted by Google on Monday as the search engine’s “doodle of the day,” highlighting the power of political dissent at a time of protests nationwide over President Donald Trump’s executive order restricting the entry of refugees from selected nations in the Middle East.

A traveling display on the “story of the man behind the name” in honor of Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution at Korematsu Middle School in El Cerrito. Tom Lochner

A traveling display on the “story of the man behind the name” in honor of Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution at Korematsu Middle School in El Cerrito. Tom Lochner

Google sent out the Korematsu quote, “If you have the feeling that something is wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up,” on its Twitter account Monday morning.

Locally, Korematsu Middle School in El Cerrito is hosting Rights and Respect Week in honor of its namesake.

“It is a time when students can ponder and discuss the breakthroughs and setbacks in the progression of civil rights in this country, as well as contemplate respect as a cultural value,” the school PTSA said in announcing the week of events it is hosting.

“It could not be more relevant,” Principal Matt Burnham said Monday as he prepared to screen “Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot,” at lunchtime in the school’s multipurpose room. The film, published by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, is part of a series on the theme of civil rights that will be shown at lunch all week.

Principal Matt Burnham stands by the Wall of Respect at Korematsu Middle School in El Cerrito on Jan. 30. Tom Lochner

Principal Matt Burnham stands by the Wall of Respect at Korematsu Middle School in El Cerrito on Jan. 30. Tom Lochner

“We have kids from Yemen and all over,” Burnham said.

Other activities include a traveling display on the “story of the man behind the name” in honor of Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, the official name commemorating the civil rights pioneer on his birthday. There will also be an assembly on Friday with Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi, authors of the new book “Korematsu Speaks Up.”

Another feature this week is a “Wall of Respect,” with index cards displaying students’ answers to a series of prompts such as “How do you show respect to others?”  and several in a similar vein.

“It means to be kind to them, and not be rude, and treat them the way you want to be treated,” went one answer that reflected many others.

Another student, commenting on what is “disrespecting,” said in part: “You are .. when someone really wants you to listen, but you aren’t. You are when you discriminate against people … when you reject people … when you ignore … when you treat someone as less than a human being.”

“I feel upset, but I can almost laugh at how stupid it is when people constantly do these things,” the student added.

The prompt “Is there anything you dislike about how people treat others at this school?” elicited comments such as “When they tease you about how you look and what you wear,” along with a few more intense ones along similar lines. But typical also were comments such as, “No,” “Not really” and “How people treat each other at school is OK.”

Korematsu famously challenged the legality of mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans on the Pacific Coast after his arrest in 1942. His challenge was carried to the Supreme Court by the American Civil Liberties Union, but his conviction was upheld and he and his family were imprisoned atthe Central Utah War Relocation Center at Topaz, Utah.

“It wasn’t until 1976 that President Gerald Ford formally ended Executive Order 9066 and apologized for the internment, stating, ‘We now know what we should have known then — not only was that evacuation wrong, but Japanese-Americans were and are loyal Americans,’ ” Google notes in its article for Korematsu Day.

Korematsu, who continued to advocate for civil rights until he died in 2005, had his conviction overturned in 1983, and in 1998 was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.