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Thu January 30, 2014

Honoring A Japanese-American Who Fought Against Internment Camps

Originally published on Fri January 31, 2014 6:39 am

Thursdaymarks Illinois' first celebration of Fred Korematsu Day, making Illinois the fourth state to honor the Japanese-American civil rights activist.

Korematsu was born in Oakland, Calif., but his U.S. citizenship didn't keep him from being arrested for refusing to be relocated to an internment camp in 1942. He challenged his arrest in court, and two years later the case made its way to the Supreme Court. Korematsu challenged the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, the decree that forced the relocation of people of Japanese descent to internment camps. The court ruled in favor of the government and against Korematsu in what is now widely considered one of its worst decisions. The majority of justices claimed the detentions were not based on racial discrimination but rather on suspicions that Japanese-Americans were acting as spies.

After World War II, Korematsu was released. But the conviction remained on his record for 40 years until it was finally overturned in 1983.

Karen Korematsu, Fred's daughter, is now the executive director of the Korematsu Institute. She hopes other states will follow Illinois' initiative — and that one day, America will have a federally recognized Fred Korematsu Day.

Theresa Mah, who works for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn as director of Asian-American outreach, supports Karen's goal. She came up with the idea of recognizing Fred Korematsu Day in her state.

"I hope that more states follow in our footsteps and proclaim the holiday as well," she says.

Mah says it's important that people know Korematsu's story in order to dispel notions that Asian-Americans never fought for their civil rights.

After being released in the aftermath of World War II, Fred Korematsu continued promoting civil rights for the rest of his life, not just calling on the government to make amends to Japanese-Americans, but also making sure his experiences served as a reminder of the importance of preserving civil liberties for all.

In 1998, Fred Korematsu was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton, who commended him for taking "an extraordinary stand."

"In the long history of our country's constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls," Clinton said. "Plessy, Brown, Parks — to that distinguished list, today we add the name of Fred Korematsu."

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Korematsu spoke out, reminding the nation of the dangers of racial profiling, drawing parallels between the 1940s profiling of Japanese-Americans and the stereotyping of citizens of Arabic descent. He even filed two amicus briefs to the Supreme Court in 2003, advising against the detention of Muslim inmates in Guantanamo Bay.

Last week, as he proclaimed Jan. 30 Fred Korematsu Day across the state, Gov. Quinn took the opportunity to emphasize the message that Korematsu often preached — a call for peaceful action and determination.

"Fred Korematsu once said, 'Protest, but not with violence. Don't be afraid to speak up. One person can make a difference, even if it takes 40 years,' " Quinn said. "These are words to live by."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Today is the first official "Fred Korematsu Day," in the state of Illinois. It's the fourth state to honor Korematsu as the Japanese-American civil rights hero by recognizing his birthday. NPR's Shareen Marisol Meraji has more.

SHAREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Today would've been Fred Korematsu's 95th birthday. He died in 2005, but if he were still here, his daughter Karen Korematsu says they'd probably...

KAREN KOREMATSU: Go out for dinner to eat in a nice restaurant.

MERAJI: She says going out to eat meant something to her father, that one of his earliest memories of discrimination was being turned away from a local diner.

KOREMATSU: This cook behind the counter said, hey boy, what do you want? And my father said, well, I want to get something to eat. No, you don't belong here and called him a lot of racist names. Go down to Chinatown. Just get out of here.

MERAJI: Fred Korematsu was a Japanese American born in Oakland, California. In just a handful of years after that diner incident, he was arrested and convicted for failing to report for relocation. Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor six months earlier.

FRED KOREMATSU: I thought the exclusion order would be only for aliens and those that were born in Japan. I didn't think that a government would go as far as to include American citizens.

MERAJI: That's Korematsu from the documentary "Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: the Fred Korematsu Story." He found internment all the way to the Supreme Court, but it ruled against him with six of the nine justices saying protecting the U.S. against spying during World War II outweighed the rights of Japanese Americans. Korematsu waited for that verdict at a prison camp in the middle of the Utah desert, a decision many have called one of the worst in the Supreme Court's history.

Theresa Mah first heard about him in an Asian American history class as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley.

THERESA MAH: When I first learned about it, it was really important because, you know, there were questions about whether - well, you know, just the idea of whether Asian Americans fight back, you know, fight for civil rights because the stories aren't out there.

MERAJI: A quarter of a century later, she's the director of Asian-American outreach for the governor of Illinois and it was her idea to have the state recognize Fred Korematsu Day along with California, Utah and Hawaii. Fred Korematsu's daughter, Karen, hopes that it will become a federal holiday so more people will know her father's story.

KOREMATSU: Yes. And if he were here, he would say, don't be afraid to speak up.

MERAJI: And that one person can make a difference, even if it takes 40 years. Korematsu's case was reopened in 1983 and his conviction overturned in federal court. But that 1944 Supreme Court ruling, it still stands. Shareen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.