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HometownLife: Canton ceremony honors civil rights hero

By Brad Kadrich

 

 

Fred Korematsu was arrested in May 1942 for defying President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, which called for Japanese Americans to report to an assembly center.

Korematsu, an American citizen of Japanese descent, was convicted and sent to an internment camp, along with some 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. He appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the court decided in a 6-3 vote that FDR's order was constitutional as a matter of national security.

Korematsu's conviction was vacated by a U.S. District Court in California in November 1983 and, 15 years later, after a life spent fighting for civil liberties, Korematsu was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this country's highest civilian honor, by President Bill Clinton.

Some 75 years after his internment and just two days after another presidential executive order having to do with immigration, the Plymouth-Canton Asian-Pacific-American Club honored Korematsu for his contributions to civil liberties with a ceremony that featured a tribute signed by Gov. Rick Snyder.

Roland Hwang, a Northville school board member and member of the Michigan Asian-Pacific-American Affairs Commission who was one of four speakers for the day, said it was important for students to recognize Korematsu's accomplishments.

Hwang told the audience Korematsu's case was considered "a civil liberties disaster." The dissenting opinion was written by Justice Frank Murphy, a former mayor of Detroit, and called the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the conviction "an abyss of racism."

But Korematsu continued the fight until he eventually had his conviction vacated. The case is recognized ultimately as a civil liberties victory, to the point where several states recognize Fred Korematsu Day.

Agustin Arulu, executive director of Michigan's Department of Civil Rights, presented the tribute from Snyder. He said the state resolution honoring Korematsu was being done "in light of current events" amid the swirling controversy over President Donald Trump's ban on Syrian refugees and travel from seven primarily Muslim countries.

"I fully understand immigration is an area over which (the commission) doesn't have any control," Hwang said. "(But) every person must be judged by the content of their character and not the country of their origin."

The assembly took place just two days after Trump's executive order banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, a move Arbulu said prompted a statement from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights decrying the action.

"We were very hurt by actions taken because they serve to divide people and can serve to foment hate ... and prejudice," he said.

Hwang drew the parallel between what Korematsu went through and current events.

"It's fair to say there's a particular climate with regard to race that is a parable to what happened during World War II," he said. "There was an outcry then, there's an outcry now. I can't urge (strongly) enough for people to speak up."

Canton High School junior Nour Kazbour said the assembly served to draw comparisons between then and now. She identifies as both Arab American and Muslim American and, as such, has heard racial insults even standing in line at the grocery store. She said Monday's assembly was successful because it did "what was important," because there are parallels between what Korematsu went through and what Muslims are seeing now.

"People are not given their rights," Kazbour said. "(Trump's order) is targeting Muslims. ... There is an obvious privilege being given to Christians. My parents are both citizens, but I know many people who aren't citizens."

It's the kind of conversation history teacher Richard Mui, who helped organize the event, hopes can be started out of the ceremony.

"(Korematsu's) story isn't told in the curriculum," Mui said. "It should change the conversation about civil liberties and national security."