Last year, on Sept. 20, California designated Jan. 30 as Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution. It was the first time that a day was officially named after an Asian American, and it was celebrated for the first time in 2011, just last week on Jan. 30.
Many young students may not be aware of who Korematsu was or what he did that earned him a day. It’s our responsibility as adults to tell them about his life.
When Japanese Americans were ordered to report to assembly centers in May 1942, due to Executive Order 9066, Korematsu was one of the few Japanese Americans that refused.
Executive Order 9066 was a U.S. presidential executive order issued by President Franklin. D. Roosevelt. It came after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and saw the relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps.
Korematsu went into hiding in the Oakland area, though he was eventually arrested later in the month. He took his case to court, testing the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a 6–3 decision, the court ruled that the executive order was constitutional, and Korematsu was interned. Judge Hugo Black also argued that the case didn’t have anything to do with racial prejudice.
It wasn’t until 1983 that Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, of U.S. District Court in San Francisco, formally vacated the conviction, clearing Korematsu’s name. But she did not overturn the Supreme Court’s decision. Evidence had been found showing that the Solicitor General of the United States had deliberately suppressed FBI and military intelligence reports. These reports stated that Japanese Americans posed no security risk and that government lawyers had made false arguments.
What is important to note is that in 1942, many Japanese Americans criticized Korematsu for his actions. Many felt that the best way to prove loyalty to the United States was to cooperate with the internment order. Many saw Korematsu as a troublemaker. Korematsu would later express that when he was interned at Utah, he felt lonely and isolated because people didn’t talk to him. They feared being associated with his notoriety.
This reminds us of something we already know — something that is very important to understand and to teach our kids. Sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t easy. What Korematsu did was particularly remarkable because he had to stand alone and even lose the support of his community. But he was strong enough to keep standing up for his convictions. ♦