Friday, December 5, 2008

T.G.I.F.: Fred Korematsu

In two days it will be December 7--the day that FDR said would always live in infamy after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And I thought it would be a good opportunity to remind us all that while Pearl Harbor and the entry of the U.S. into WWII was a historic moment and a time when many Americans came together in national unity, it was also a time of racial hysteria that led to the unconstitutional incarceration of an entire race of people based on an irrational and unfounded fear that their enemy-alien race would lead to treason and disloyalty.

I am, of course, referring to the Japanese American Internment, a topic that I've blogged about in the past here and here.

The Japanese American internment was and is a matter of national shame. However, the redress and reparations movement that emerged in the decades that followed is a lesson in the greatness of America. One man crucial to that movement was Fred Korematsu.

[This is Fred back in the early '40s]

Fred Korematsu was one of four U.S. citizens who fought the U.S. government and had his case argued in front of the Supreme Court. He is one of three men whose cases were denied and thus he, along with Min Yasui and Gordon Hirabayashi, were approached, decades later, to have their cases taken up again--to try to correct the wrong that had been done when their cases were first argued in front of the Supreme Court.

A fantastic documentary, Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story, documents Fred Korematsu's story. Here's an excerpt from the film's website:
Born in Oakland, California in 1919, Fred Korematsu is the son of Japanese immigrants. Until December 7, 1941, Korematsu had been living the life of a typical American man: he worked as welder in the San Francisco shipyards, owned a convertible and was very much in love with his girlfriend. However, as he was enjoying a picnic with his girlfriend on the eve of December 7, news of the Pearl Harbor attack started pouring out of his radio. Although he didn't know it at the time, Korematsu's life would never be the same again.

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which ordered the internment of all Japanese Americans. The Korematsu family was taken to Tanforan, a former racetrack south of San Francisco for processing. Korematsu decided to stay behind because he did not want to be separated from his Italian-American girlfriend.

Korematsu refused to relinquish his freedom and tried to remain unnoticed, to no avail. On May 30,1942, Korematsu was arrested and sent to join Tanforan. Later, all the detainees were transferred to the Topaz internment camp in Utah.

Persuaded by Ernest Besig, then Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, Korematsu filed a case on June 12, 1942. The premise of the lawsuit was that Korematsu's constitutional rights had been violated and he had suffered racial discrimination. However, the court ruled against Korematsu and he was sentenced to 5 years probation. Determined to pursue his cause, Korematsu filed an appeal with Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and, later, to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, in December 1944, the Supreme Court ruled against him, stating that Korematsu "was not excluded from the military area because of hostility to him or his race."

Years later, a legal team headed by Peter Irons and staffed by largely young and idealistic Asian American attorneys, uncovered evidence that
"clearly showed the government concealed evidence in the 1944 case that racism — not military necessity — motivated the internment order. More than 39 years after the fact, a federal judge reversed Fred Korematsu's conviction, acknowledging the "great wrong" done to him."

A quote from Fred Korematsu sums up a simple but powerful sentiment that we would all be wise to heed:

"If you have the feeling that something is wrong, don't be afraid to speak up." - Fred Korematsu

Fred passed away on March 31, 2005 at the age of 86. He will always be remembered for his courage to speak truth to power during a time of enormous social and global pressure to stay silent and not to question authority. His life truly is a lesson in the Great Impossible Feat.

No comments: