Korematsu’s Legacy: Raise your voice against government injustice

korematsu1 (photo: Gary Fong/S.F. Chronicle)

Governor Pat Quinn has issued a proclamation declaring January 30 as “Fred Korematsu Day” across the state of Illinois. Illinois joins three other states, California, Hawaii and Utah, in celebrating and commemorating the life of Fred Korematsu, a hero for civil rights and liberties during the time of World War II.

The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor ignited widespread fear amongst the American people of future attacks by Japan or other Axis powers. This fear reared its ugly head in the issuance of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942. This order created 10 internment camps, labeled “relocation centers,” in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado and Arkansas. More than 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were ordered to relocate to these camps where they faced overcrowded, abysmal living conditions. Fred Korematsu saw the injustice in this act and refused to comply with the Order. He took great measures to do so, creating an alias and undergoing plastic surgery. In 1942, he was discovered and arrested for evading the order. Despite this, Korematsu continued to fight against the discriminatory law by turning to the courts. Korematsu challenged the Order’s constitutionality and the case against the US government went all the way to the Supreme Court. However, in a 6-3 decision, the Court upheld the Order under the justification of “national security.” It was not until 1983 that Korematsu’s conviction was overturned. Korematsu displayed great courage by refusing to relinquish his protected rights and standing up to the government’s injustice, despite the repercussions.

While Korematsu did receive national recognition for his actions with a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, many still are unaware of this champion of civil rights. Four out of fifty states recognize the holiday and just two of the seven states that held internment camps do so. During the hearing to overturn his conviction, Korematsu had said to District Judge Marilyn Patel: “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.”

While the interned Japanese Americans did eventually receive a formal apology and reparations from the government in 1968, it is safe to say that Korematsu would be greatly disappointed in the country’s state of affairs today. There is a clear parallel between the injustices committed against Japanese Americans in 1942 and the injustices being committed against Americans of Arab ethnicity today. In 1942, the US government chose to violate the civil liberties of Japanese Americans simply because of their ethnicity. They justified these actions by pointing to the attack at Pearl Harbor and claiming it was being done in the interest of national security. They put forth the perception that Japanese Americans were not to be trusted and that because of their ethnicity, they were not subject to the full protections that citizenship and the Constitution provides.

Today, there is a similar targeting of Arab, south east Asian, and Muslim communities by the law enforcement. Their civil liberties have come under threat simply because of their race and, or, faith. The government and local law enforcement justify these actions by pointing to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and claiming that their torturous interrogation tactics, unwarranted surveillance, and ability to indefinitely detain individuals protect our national security. Guantanamo Bay prison has become the Japanese American “relocation center” of our time. Korematsu would not stand for these discriminatory and unconstitutional actions and we should not either.

It is time to revive Korematsu’s legacy and voice our dissent. It is our responsibility and duty as citizens to not comply with government action that strips the civil rights and liberties of individuals because of their ethnicity, race or faith.

“Fred Korematsu once said, ‘Protest, but not with violence. Don’t be afraid to speak up. One person can make a difference, even if it takes forty years’,” said Governor Quinn during the proclamation. “These are words to live by.”

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