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Honoring civil rights pioneer Fred Korematsu

Fred Korematsu, seated center, at a 1983 press conference announcing the re-opening of his civil rights case.
Fred Korematsu, seated center, at a 1983 press conference announcing the re-opening of his civil rights case.
Photo Courtesy of the family of Fred T. Korematsu/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Sunday marks the first celebration of a new state holiday, Fred Korematsu Day, for the late Japanese American civil rights hero whose journey as an activist began when he challenged his forced incarceration in an internment camp during World War II.

A bill approving the Jan. 30 holiday was signed last September by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, making it the first holiday in the United States honoring an Asian American leader.

Assembly member Warren Furutani, whose 55th district includes parts of the South Bay and Long Beach, sponsred the bill. He wrote about Korematsu's legacy in yesterday's Daily Breeze:

While the use of the term "concentration camp" may seem controversial to some, we must not forget that Japanese-Americans incarcerated during World War II were American citizens who were uprooted from their homes, forced to live in remote camps, and were not given due process of law. In fact, President Franklin Roosevelt used the term "concentration camp" to identify the camps while they were in existence.

At one time, this chapter was virtually ignored in American history books. But in the late 1960s, information started to emerge, and outrage accompanied the growing awareness about this dark time.

One of the unexpected actors to emerge in this unfolding drama was a humble individual who challenged the law and executive order that allowed Japanese-Americans to be incarcerated in 1942. His name was Fred Korematsu, and he decided that what he learned about freedom, as an American citizen of Japanese ancestry in San Francisco Bay Area public schools, applied to him as well.

Korematsu was born in 1919 in Oakland to Japanese immigrant parents. According to to an official biography, he initially tried to enlist in the U.S. National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard at the onset of the war, but was turned away due to his ethnicity. He found work as a shipyard welder and was 23 years old when, in 1942, he received his incarceration order.

Refusing to go to a camp, he was arrested and convicted of defying a government order. Korematsu appealed, and eventually his case wound up in the Supreme Court, which in 1944 ruled against him and that the incarceration "was justified due to military necessity."

Other Japanese Americans who had also fought against incarceration, Gordon Hirabayashi of Washington and Minoru Yasui of Oregon, had also lost in court.

Almost 40 years later, after a legal historian discovered key government documents showing no justification for the mass incarceration, Korematsu's case was re-opened and, in November 1983, his conviction was overturned. It was a precedent-setting civil right case. Afterward, similar decisions were reached in the Washington and Oregon internment cases.

In 1998, Korematsu received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He remained an activist most of his life, in recent years speaking out against the discrimination of Americans of Middle Eastern descent. He died in 2005.

In 2009, San Francisco's Asian Law Caucus, along with Karen Korematsu, his daughter, founded the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education. The institute produced this video on Korematsu's story with a message from Karen Korematsu.

Korematsu was also the subject of an award-winning 2000 documentary, "Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story."

Sunday's holiday marks what would have been his 92nd birthday.