100 years ago today, Fred Korematsu was born.
He was an American. He was a patriot. He was jailed because of where his parents were born.
Mr. Korematsu was born in Oakland, California on January 30 1919. When he turned 18, he tried to join the National Guard and Coast Guard, but was rejected by both supposedly because of stomach ulcers. He trained in the bay area shipyards to be a welder, and quickly rose to the rank of foreman. One day when he arrived at work to punch his timecard, it was missing. Instead in its slot was a note to go to the office. When he got there he was summarily fired because of his Japanese ancestry.
After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued executive order 9066 which paved the way for Japanese Americans to be placed in internment camps. Fred Korematsu said that he was an American citizen, and this order defied the constitution and the values upon which America was founded. He had a minor plastic surgery to make him look less Japanese and began going by the name “Clyde Sarah”. He told anyone who asked that he was of Spanish and Hawaiian descent. He only made it a few months. In San Leandro, California in May of 1942, he was arrested on the charge of “suspicion of being Japanese.” A local paper reported “Jap spy arrested in San Leandro.” He was convicted in federal court of violating order 9066, given five years probation, and sent to an internment camp in Utah.
In 1944, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Korematsu appealed his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The court ruled against Korematsu by a 6-3 margin stating that the United States government was justified in the internment of Japanese Americans because they were signaling Japanese ships off the shore, and were “prone to disloyalty.”
After the war and his release from the camp, Korematsu wanted to resume a normal life. He moved to Detroit, because that is where his brother lived. While there, he met his future bride. She was white and from from South Carolina. They had to get married in Michigan, because neither of their home states allowed inter-racial marriage at this time.
Mr. Korematsu continued to be plagued by his conviction, as it often kept him from employment. He tried to get a real estate license, but was rejected because of his criminal record. In 1983, he re-opened his case and suit against the American Government. Federal Prosecutors offered him a pardon if he would drop the case, but he refused.
His wife Kathryn said:
“Fred was not interested in a pardon from the government; instead, he always felt that it was the government who should seek a pardon from him and from Japanese Americans for the wrong that was committed.”
His conviction was overturned, and it was a monumental day for civil liberties in America, although much too late. In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Mr. Korematsu the Presidential medal of freedom. He died at the age of 86 in 2005.
Photo Credit: A.P.
In 2010, Republican Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law that January 30th would be forever known in California as Fred Korematsu day. A day that honors not only him, but those that fight for civil liberties.
The Governor said that day, “The day recognizes the importance of preserving civil liberties, even in times of real or perceived crisis.”
Several other states have also designated today as a day to honor both Fred Korematsu, and what he fought for.
It is too bad the the rest of America didn’t stand up for Fred Korematsu and other Japanese Americans unjustly discriminated against when they had the chance to. Hopefully we will learn from this, and live up to the ideals we were founded upon in the future.
Always remember, when we make irrational decisions like this based on fear, we stop being America.
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