Today, we honor the legacy of Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American hero who stood his ground in the face of injustice.
After the Pearl Harbor attacks in 1941, Fred Korematsu challenged 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 country. Two-thirds of these people were American citizens. Mr. Korematsu went into hiding in the Oakland area, becoming a fugitive, and was arrested and convicted of violating the federal order. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 6-3 decision, the Court upheld the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066 under the justification of national security.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed a special commission to investigate Japanese American internment during World War II. The commission concluded that the decisions to remove those of Japanese ancestry to internment camps occurred because of "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership". Four decades after the Supreme Court decision, a legal historian discovered evidence proving that U.S. intelligence agencies knew that Japanese Americans posed no military threat to the country during World War II. Mr. Korematsu's conviction was overturned in 1983 by District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel. When Mr. Korematsu stood in front of Judge Marilyn Patel he said these famous words: “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.” In a formal apology under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the U.S. government granted $1.6 billion in reparations to all Japanese Americans who had been interned.
In 1998 when President Clinton awarded Mr. 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."
Fred Korematsu died of respiratory failure at his daughter's home in Marin County, California on March 30, 2005. To commemorate his legacy, on September 23, 2010, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill that designates January 30 “Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution.”
Today, we honor the legacy of Fred Korematsu so we will never forget the injustices inflicted upon innocent citizens who were incarcerated, treated like second-class citizens, and denied due process and equal protection guaranteed to them by the Constitution. The stories of Fred Korematsu and of many other leaders in the fight for civil rights not only remind us of the wrongs in history, but also serve as a learning opportunity for all of us on how we should treat our neighbors and fellow citizens. Today, we remember the dangers of casting stereotypes based on race, religion, or sexual orientation. 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 solely on the content of their characters, not on the color of their skin, where they come from, or who they love.
Kiran Ahuja is Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.