By Scott Bolthouse
Several groups came together Feb. 3 at Fordson High School in Dearborn to honor the civil rights legacy of Fred Korematsu, an American citizen of Japanese ancestry who was incarcerated during World War II by the U.S. government following the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
Among those who attended the private ceremony inside of the school’s auditorium were members of the Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission; Dearborn Public Schools Supt. Glenn Maleyko; the superintendent’s Student Advisory Council; Augustin Arbulu, director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights; Mary Kamidoi, a former internee during the Japanese incarceration, and dozens of students, staff, and school board members.
The event began with a presentation of a governor’s certificate recognizing Fred Korematsu Day and brief comments from Roland Hwang of the Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission.
“Fred Korematsu was a 23-year-old son of nursery owners who had the guts to stand up to the U.S. government,” Hwang said. “Executive order 9066, which was signed by President Roosevelt at the beginning of World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, was a civil liberties disaster.”
Hwang said that the executive order signed by Roosevelt incarcerated 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were American citizens.
Adding to the injustice, Hwang said, was the fact that there was no record of espionage or sabotage involving Japanese Americans in the United States.
After Korematsu failed to report to an assembly center following the executive order, he was captured, arrested, and appealed his case to the Supreme Court in 1944.
“With this backdrop, Fred Korematsu fought the internment of Japanese Americans, and that case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where a 6 to 3 vote went against Korematsu and supported the legitimacy of the internment,” Hwang said.
Still, Korematsu’s fight for civil rights and for the government to recognize the cruelties of the Japanese internments never wavered.
After World War II, Korematsu fled to Michigan. In Detroit, he worked as a draftsman, and married Kathryn Pearson in 1946 before moving back to California to raise a family together.
In 1983, his conviction was vacated by the U.S. District Court in northern California based on information that the War Department had misled the Supreme Court with false allegations of espionage.
In 1998, Korematsu was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton, and continued to fight for civil rights up until his death on March 30, 2005.
Agustin Arbulu, director for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said that he would be remiss if he failed to comment on the state of affairs currently facing immigration.
“I fully understand that immigration and border security are federal matters over which the state has minimum or no legal authority,” Arbulu said. “At the same time, the department believes very strongly that, central to our laws upon which this nation was built, is a fundamental statement and value that every person be judged by the content of their character, and not by the country of their origin.”
He added: “When government treats groups based on its worst elements, it not only harms other members, but it hurts us all. We must work to mend our division, not multiply it.”
After a short documentary film featuring Korematsu’s life and civil rights achievements was shown, Ron Aramaki, adjunct instructor for the University of Michigan’s Department of American Culture, had a clear message for the audience.
“After today, please do the 5-3-1,” he said. “I’d like you to learn five things you never knew about Fred Korematsu and the fight for civil rights, then share that with three people, and then the one is…do something about it. Educate people, speak up, and defend civil rights.
“That’s how we move forward.”