Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
President Bill Clinton (R) stands with Fred Korematsu (L) after awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, January 15, 1998.
California celebrated the first "Fred Korematsu Day" on Sunday. Korematsu was a Japanese-American who was locked up in a World War II incarceration camp, even though he was an American citizen. He proceeded to battle his incarceration in court.
Korematsu was born and raised in Oakland. When President Roosevelt issued an executive order mandating that all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast be incarcerated, Korematsu refused to go. He also changed his appearance to elude authorities.
Korematsu was eventually arrested in May of 1942, and later convicted of defying the military orders. He fought back and challenged that conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But he eventually lost the case. In 1944, the high court ruled that his incarceration was a matter of "military necessity."
For decades, Korematsu hoped his case would be reopened. That finally happened in 1983, thanks to a pair of researchers.
"Two researchers found original evidence from the 1940s, these were documents from multiple, government intelligence agencies, that showed clearly that the government at the time knew that Japanese–Americans posed absolutely no military threat to the government," said Ling Woo Liu, director of the Fred Korematsu Institute. "However, these documents were intentionally hidden from the Supreme Court."
Relying on the new evidence, a federal judge overturned Korematsu's conviction.
Last year, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill creating a day to honor the forgotten civil rights figure. Liu said the driving force behind "Fred Korematsu Day" is education. She says many people aren't aware of Korematsu's story because it isn't taught in schools, but she hopes that will now change.
There are also efforts underway to establish a national "Fred Korematsu Day."
Audio: KPCC's Kari Moran spoke with Ling Woo Liu, director of the Fred Korematsu Institute, about Korematsu's legacy.