Fred Korematsu

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Fred Korematsu is a civil rights hero. He’s also an American, though his government attempted to suggest otherwise. He preceded Rosa Parks by 15 years but his actions failed to have the same seismic impact because he didn't have a whole movement ready to rally around him. Indeed, US civil-rights leaders at the time refused to touch his case.

He pursued justice on his own. Patiently. And he got it. But it took four decades.

This is his little known story…

Fred Korematsu was born in Oakland, California, in 1919. He was one of four sons. Until the Japanese attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, he lived an unremarkable life. Then everything changed for Fred and his brothers. For their parents were Japanese immigrants.

Fred Korematsu and his family in his flower nursery. Photo courtesy of Karen Korematsu and the Korematsu Institute.

Fred Korematsu and his family in his flower nursery. Photo courtesy of Karen Korematsu and the Korematsu Institute.

In February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered restrictions on movements on all Japanese-Americans living on the west coast of the US. These restrictions got tighter and tighter until, eventually, all Japanese-Americans were rounded up and jailed – though the word used by the government was “interned” – in America's version of concentrations camps.

Fred simply refused to go. He even had plastic surgery to make him appear less Japanese.

Japanese-Americans at an internment camp, waiting in line to eat.

Japanese-Americans at an internment camp, waiting in line to eat.

A fugitive from the law, even if it was unjust, Fred was hunted and arrested. On May 30, 1942, he was charged with refusing the president's order to allow himself to be imprisoned. Before his trial, on June 12, 1942, the American Civil Liberties Union debated whether to defend him. The Washington DC leadership, however, didn't want to embarrass their friend, President Roosevelt. The group's California leader did back Fred. But it wasn't enough save him. He was convicted and sent to a penal camp in the state of Utah where he earned $12 a month doing manual labor.

His case made it through the US legal system all the way to the Supreme Court two years later in 1944. Believe it or not, the highest court in the land of immigrants upheld Fred's imprisonment, saying the president had the authority to protect the US in a time of emergency.

They actually saw patriotic Fred as a security threat.

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According to the 9-justice court's 6-3 ruling, Korematsu was punished not "because of hostility to him or his race" but because the United States was at war with Japan, and the military "feared an invasion of our West Coast." Arguing the minority opinion, in favor of freeing Korematsu, Justice Frank Murphy wrote that the exclusion order "goes over the very brink of constitutional power and falls into the ugly abyss of racism."

That decision has never been reversed -- something to remember today as the current president and his attorney general actively separate babies from their mothers on behalf of “national security.”

After his release from prison following World War II, Fred Korematsu fought ceaselessly for his vindication. It took 40 years, but a lower US court finally reversed his conviction in 1983. 

"I didn't feel guilty because I didn't do anything wrong," he told The New York Times after the refusal announcement. "Every day in school, we said the pledge to the flag, 'with liberty and justice for all,' and I believed all that. I was an American citizen, and I had as many rights as anyone else."

In 1988, the US government passed a law providing payments and apologies to Japanese-Americans relocated and interned during World War II. That same year, Korematsu received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

What we know now is that the whole Japanese internment effort was based on a blatant lie. In 2011, President Obama's Justice Department revealed that Roosevelt's Justice Department deliberately hid a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence concluding that Japanese-Americans living on the US West Coast did not pose a military threat. The report indicated there was no evidence to suggest that Japanese-Americans were disloyal, were acting as spies, or were signaling enemy submarines, as some at the highest levels of government office suggested.

Indeed, they were just like most all other Americans: immigrants or children of immigrants who worked hard and were proud to salute the US flag. Until, like Fred, they the came face to face with discrimination and fell victim to presidential lies.

Today, on the US-Mexico border, history is once again repeating itself. We honor the current victims of prejudice and authoritative deceit by remembering Fred Korematsu, today's Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero, and his 40-year struggle for justice.

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