You know MLK, but do you know FTK?: Why we all should celebrate Fred T. Korematsu

In 1942, Korematsu, when he was all of 23, refused the U.S. government’s order to be placed in an internment camp for Japanese Americans. 

Almost everyone else was rounded up and incarcerated without a fight.

The U.S. said, go. But Korematsu said, no.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, with the government arguing against the 14th Amendment and justifying the internment of Japanese Americans as a “military necessity.” Critics say the Court’s unwillingness to go against the government and President Roosevelt might explain why civil rights stalwarts like William O. Douglas and Hugo Black were part of a 6-3 majority against Korematsu.

To this day, that 1944 decision still stands.

Korematsu did ultimately spend time in an internment camp. Not only was he shunned by society in general, he was also shunned by other Japanese Americans in camp who believed he should have shut up and cooperated.

Vindication came 40 years later when government memos revealed that information was kept from the Supreme Court for consideration. The Army contended the Japanese Americans were a threat, but that was contradicted by the FBI’s intelligence.

The suppressed information was enough for a group of attorneys, mostly young Japanese Americans, to reopen the case and overturn Korematsu’s conviction in 1983 in a federal district court in San Francisco.

But the 1944 Supreme Court decision remained untouched. Because the government declined to appeal, Korematsu’s crew of young lawyers was  blocked from getting back to the high court.

That means the original “bad” SCOTUS decision is still technically the law.

 

It also means an internment—the wholesale incarceration of people based on race—could happen again.

Indeed a form of it has happened again, only instead of using Korematsu as a precedent, Congress simply approved the National Defense Authorization like it did in 2011.

“That allowed for the indefinite suspension on mere suspicion,” said Dale Minami, the San Francisco attorney who led the legal team to victory at the district court level. “That means you can grab anyone on the street for having some tenuous connection to a Muslim or supposedly terrorist group and detain them for as long as the Japanese Americans, without a trial, a right to a hearing or right to consul.”

That sort of thing shouldn’t happen in a strong democracy.

But it can and will happen again and again, if we forget the case of Fred Korematsu.

In most places of higher learning, unless you’re majoring in ethnic studies or have a professor with an enlightened sense of U.S. history, it’s unlikely you’ll hear about Korematsu.

That’s one reason the family of Korematsu has formed the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, dedicated to exposing young people K-12 with curricular materials that meet state social studies requirements. In just a few years, it’s distributed more than 3,000 kits to schools in 40 states.

You can download information at http://korematsuinstitute.org/fredkorematsuday/curriculum/

 

Fred Korematsu, who passed away in 2005, would have been 94 today. 

 

In 2010, California was the first state to pass a bill making Jan. 30, Fred Korematsu Day. Utah was next. This week Hawaii becomes the third state to adopt a Fred Korematsu Day.

Karen Korematsu, Fred Korematsu’s daughter, says she’ll go state to state until it becomes a national holiday to celebrate civil liberties and diversity.

Emil Guillermo is an award-winning writer and author based in California. He blogs at www.amok.com and www.aaldef.org/blog