CHICAGO – Gov. Pat Quinn on Friday proclaimed Jan. 30 “Fred Korematsu Day” across Illinois to honor the civil rights activist whose challenge of the Japanese American internment in World War II became a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case.
Illinois is the fourth state to recognize Korematsu, following Hawaii, California and Utah. It is the first such honorary day named for an Asian American in the United States.
“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 40 years.’ These are words to live by,” Quinn said, praising Korematsu’s “tenacity and commitment to making the world a better place for everyone.”
Korematsu was born in Oakland, Calif. on Jan. 30, 1919, attended public schools, where he joined the tennis and swim teams, worked in the family nursery and – in 1940 – registered for the draft in hopes of joining the U.S. Navy. Health issues prevented a Navy career, but he was hired as a welder in the Navy shipyards in Oakland, a job he lost after the Pearl Harbor attack.
His life changed with Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which led to the confinement of 120,000 Americans of Japanese origin in camps throughout the West. While his family was sent to an internment camp, Korematsu had plastic surgery to change his appearance and created an alias, “Clyde Sarah.” He was arrested in May 1942 and jailed.
When approached by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, Korematsu agreed to let his case test the constitutionality of the camps. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against him.
Four decades later, Korematsu’s case was reopened on the basis of new evidence that the government had lied to the Supreme Court about the “military necessity” of the internment. His conviction was vacated.
When President Bill Clinton gave Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, he called Korematsu a quiet, brave American who took an extraordinary stand. Clinton said, “In the long history of our country’s constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls … today we add the name of Fred Korematsu.”
“I appreciate Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn recognizing my father’s activism and promoting his legacy,” said Karen Korematsu, executive director of the not-for-profit Fred Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education. “My dream is someday to see a federally recognized ‘Fred Korematsu Day’ that would remind us – especially on Jan. 30 – that our civil liberties and the Constitution are afforded to all Americans regardless of race, color and creed.”
“The case of Fred Korematsu is a lesson for all Americans about the fragile nature of individual rights and the danger this can pose to our fundamental belief about equal justice as expressed in our Constitution,” Japanese American Citizens League Midwest Regional Director William Yoshino said. “During World War II, our nation succumbed to racism and wartime hysteria in detaining and confining all Japanese Americans residing on the West Coast. It was a tragic lesson we must heed when similar situations of national security arise today and in the future.”
“When fear – instead of fact – guides government decisions, we all lose,” South Asian American Policy & Research Institute Executive Director Ami Gandhi said. “Whether it is in the realm of local law enforcement, national security, or immigration, data-driven policies will keep all of us more safe and secure. We thank Gov. Quinn and the Japanese American Citizens League for reminding us all to guard against fear and prejudice.”
“Fred Korematsu was a champion of human rights and civil liberties,” said Illinois Human Rights Commission Chairman Martin Castro. “His bold and noble stand in refusing the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II enshrines him in the same civil rights pantheon as Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez. Mr. Korematsu’s struggle against a denial of rights and liberty over 70 years ago remains relevant today to ensure that we not repeat in this century the mistakes of the last.”
The documentary “Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story” will be screened on Jan. 30 from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Chicago’s DePaul College of Law, 25 E. Jackson Blvd., Room 903. Speakers will include Kiyo Yoshimura, a former internee, and Rabya Khan, staff attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
In addition to being officially honored by four states, Korematsu is today honored with three schools in California being named after him. He is also featured in Oakland’s “Champions for Humanity” sculpture, alongside Dr. King, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi.