Happy (Belated) Fred Korematsu Day!
Yesterday, California marked the very first Fred Korematsu Day recognizing the life’s
work of the Japanese-American civil rights activist. The California holiday, which is the first day in U.S. history ever be named after an Asian American, honors Korematsu’s sustained activism and role in fighting Japanese incarceration during and after World War II.
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were subject to intense hatred and a mass incarceration detaining 120,000 individuals in camps across the West. The 23 year-old Korematsu went to great lengths to avoid joining his family in detention centers, changing his name and even having his eyes altered through plastic surgery. In 1942 he was detained and convicted for walking down the street, an illegal act for Japanese Americans at the time, and was sent to join his family in a Utah detention camp.
Aided by the ACLU, Korematsu challenged his conviction all the way to the Supreme Court where he lost in a 6-3 decision. After serving years in the detention camp, he was released, given a $25 stipend for his time, and forced to live with his conviction as he fought to have it overturned for nearly 40 years. Ling Woo Liu summed up the significance of his life’s work in Time Magazine:
Then, in 1983, nearly four decades after Korematsu’s failed Supreme Court challenge, a legal historian named Peter Irons contacted him. While conducting research in government archives. Irons found World War II–era documents from multiple federal intelligence agencies clearly acknowledging that Japanese Americans posed no military threat to the U.S. These documents had been intentionally hidden from the Supreme Court during Korematsu’s 1944 trial. Korematsu had finally found a way to reopen his case — on the basis of government misconduct. On Nov. 10, 1983, a judge in a federal court in San Francisco overturned his conviction. The crowd in the courtroom, many of whom were former camp prisoners, burst into tears
After a lifetime of activism, including work on the Japanese-American redress movement and friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of Muslim detainees in U.S. military prisons, Korematsu died in 2005 at the age of 86.
In 1988, the United States ruled that Japanese-American internment unjust and Congress paid reparations to its victims and their heirs. Korematsu has gone down in history as a fighter who saw his 40-year challenge to unjust incarceration all the way through. As the students at Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy in East Oakland chant every morning: “Korematsu! We stand up for what is right!”