"We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed…” --President Barack Obama, 2011 State of Union Address
In 1998 when President Clinton awarded Fred Korematsu the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, he stated, "In the long history of our country's constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls. Plessy, Brown, Parks … to that distinguished list, today we add the name of Fred Korematsu."
California's proclamation of January 30th as “Fred T. Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution” celebrates the legacy of a courageous man who has left a message not just for one community, but for the entire country. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Fred Korematsu defied President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 that authorized the U.S. military to forcibly remove more than 120,000 people, mostly of Japanese descent, from their homes and into incarceration camps throughout the United States. Two-thirds of these people were American citizens.
Mr. Korematsu was arrested and convicted of violating the federal order. He lost appeals all the way to the Supreme Court. In June 1983, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians concluded that the decision to remove those people of Japanese ancestry to U.S. prison camps occurred because of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” Four decades after the Supreme Court decision, after a legal historian discovered evidence proving that U.S. intelligence agencies knew that Japanese American posed no military threat to the country during World War II, Korematsu's conviction was overturned. When Mr. Korematsu stood in front of U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel he said, “I would like to see the government admit that they were wrong and do something about it so this will never happen again to any American citizen of any race, creed, or color.”
We are all uniquely aware of the injustices inflicted on those taken to incarceration camps, treated like second-hand citizens, and robbed of due process. We also note the struggles of many for the ability to vote, to own property, and to seek a better life than those who came before them. The experience of Fred Korematsu and many other leaders in the fight for civil rights is not just a page in history books for students to remember the wrongs of past, but a learning opportunity for all of us on how we should treat our neighbors and fellow citizens moving forward.
In President Obama’s recent State of Union address, he stated, “American Muslims are part of our American family"—an important reminder that sheds light on this very lesson learned from Fred Korematsu. Today, we remember the dangers of casting stereotypes on entire communities, and we recommit to our country’s ideals of protecting civil rights and promoting an environment where people can strive to achieve the American dream based on the content of one’s character, not the color of one’s skin.
Akil Vohra is a Senior Advisor at the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders