Rafu Staff Report
PASADENA — The Pasadena City College Board of Trustees unanimously voted to support Fred Korematsu Day at its April 4 meeting.
PCC joins the Pasadena Unified School District and the City of Pasadena in recognizing the late civil rights icon, who challenged the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. His birthday, Jan. 30, was established as Fred Korematsu Day by the State of California in 2010 and the first celebrations were held last year.
The PCC resolution “encourages all faculty, students, staff and administration to observe the Fred T. Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution on Jan. 30, or the days surrounding it, and recognize the importance of preserving civil liberties, even in times of real or perceived crisis.” It was forwarded by the President’s Asian and Pacific Islander Advisory Committee to Superintendent/President Dr. Mark Rocha, who is also secretary to the Board of Trustees.
Trustee Linda Wah, a member of the committee, gave some background: “We have a Fred Korematsu Institute (in San Francisco), and they have been going all over the country, encouraging cities to adopt Fred Korematsu Day on or around Jan. 30. Pasadena was the first city in Southern California to do so, and I was just at the PUSD board meeting last week, where they also adopted a resolution to not only adopt Fred Korematsu Day but also to include information about the history of Fred Korematsu into the curriculum … There were very touching remarks made by board members.”
She emphasized, “This resolution is not just about Japanese Americans. It’s really about protecting civil liberties and rights for everyone.”
Joseph Loo of the South Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education, which has also passed a Korematsu resolution, briefly explained Korematsu’s legal challenge, which began in 1942 when the 23-year-old was arrested in the Bay Area for failing to obey the government’s internment orders. He appealed his conviction all the way to the Supreme Court and lost.
“Fred Korematsu said, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m an American citizen. ‘Why is this happening to me?’” Loo said.
Forty years later, legal scholar Peter Irons and archival researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga uncovered government documents revealing that “they knew there was no military threat from the Japanese in the United States, but they withheld this information from the Supreme Court,” Loo continued. Korematsu’s case was reopened and his conviction was overturned, “which was very important to him because it was on his record all those decades, and it was one of the first times where the U.S. government admitted wrongdoing and error.”
Comparing Korematsu to the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned state-sponsored segregation, Loo said, “Fred Korematsu is one of those people that brought to us what is the significance of civil rights and civil liberties. So we begin, school by school, district by district, state by state, to reinforce the idea that civil liberties belong to all of us.”
Michelle White spoke in support of the resolution as an African American civil rights attorney and advocate, as a member of Orange Grove Friends Meeting (a Quaker organization), and as president of the ACLU chapter in Pasadena. She noted that the Quakers helped Esther Takei Nishio to become the first Japanese American internee to return to the West Coast to attend college in 1944.
“It was … part of an attempt to convince the United States that Japanese Americans were really no threat, and especially college students should be permitted to continue their education,” White said. “Of course, PCC ought to be commended for having accepted the challenge of including a Japanese American as part of their student body at such a challenging time.”
She added, “ACLU was part of the legal team that represented Fred Korematsu in his 1944 and 1983 challenges to President Roosevelt’s executive order.”
Wendy Anderson, a lifelong Pasadena resident who was involved in the City Council and Board of Education resolutions, was unable to stay for the public comment portion of the Board of Trustees meeting. On her behalf, White said, “She wanted to point out that there are many (educational) resources now available … and she wanted to strongly support inclusion of Fred Korematsu Day and civil rights issues as part of the PCC curriculum.”
Board President Geoffrey Baum suggested that the portion of the resolution dealing with history/social science curriculum in K-12 public schools be revised to make it “directly relevant” to college-level instruction. Trustee Dr. Jeanette Mann agreed and recommended that the Academic Senate review the resolution and apply it to PCC’s curriculum process.
Before passage of the resolution, Baum stated, “Pasadena City College’s tradition and heritage is one of standing up for civil rights, and it went back to how we objected to in the ’40s … when our friends and neighbors were subject to internment. And then we all were part of that ceremony a couple of years ago where we issued diplomas to the Nisei students … As part of our instructional program, we send students to Manzanar every year to understand about this chapter of American history.”
Baum recalled presenting a high school diploma in 2006 to George Hayakawa, who was a high school student enrolled at Pasadena Junior High/Pasadena Junior College from 1939 to 1942 before being interned at the Tulare Assembly Center and Gila River in Arizona. “To be able to have that opportunity to do that was the most meaningful thing I’ve done as a public official — to try to take some measure, a step or two, to right a terrible wrong. I’m proud and thankful that we have now another opportunity to move in that direction.”