Rafu Staff Report
SAN FRANCISCO — “Stand Up for What Is Right” was the theme of the annual Fred Korematsu Day celebration, held Jan. 30 at the Nourse Auditorium in San Francisco.
Presented by the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, this year’s program marked the 10th year since the civil rights icon’s passing. Jan. 30 would have been his 96th birthday.
The keynote speaker was actor and activist George Takei, known for playing Sulu on “Star Trek” and the subject of a new documentary, “To Be Takei.”
Karen Korematsu, Fred Korematsu’s daughter and the founder and executive director of the Korematsu Institute, gave opening remarks. She was presented with a Korematsu Day resolution by Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco).
Other speakers included San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who has led protests against police shootings of unarmed black men, and Theresa Sparks, executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and one of the most prominent female transgender activists in the nation.
The program opened with taiko by Genryu Arts under the direction of Melody Takata. Spoken-word artist Fong Tran performed “Dream Young Man of Color” and a video about the Korematsu case featured students from the Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program at Clarendon Elementary School.
Award-winning journalist, author, poet and entertainer Francesca Yukari Biller served as emcee.
Since 2010, California, Hawaii, Utah, Illinois and Georgia have recognized Korematsu Day by statute, legislative resolution or proclamation by the governor. Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia have considered or are considering legislative recognition.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has also urged President Obama and Congress to establish Fred Korematsu Day as a national holiday.
Following is an edited version of Takei’s keynote address.
Some of you may have seen me on TV soaring through the galaxy and driving a starship. But I’m down to Earth, where Sulu was born, right here in San Francisco …
My father spent most of his life in Los Angeles. He grew up in San Francisco, but he spent most of his life in Los Angeles and he continually called himself a San Franciscan. I said, “Daddy, you’ve lived your life in Los Angeles. Why do you call yourself a San Franciscan?” He said, “Once a San Franciscan, always a San Franciscan.” So I feel I have a connection to San Francisco via my father …
The other thing that’s special about San Francisco is that this city has always been a hotbed of activism for justice and equality for all the people that have been marginalized by society. That is very important … because throughout American history, Americans who cherish the principles of our democracy and who have the guts to match that democracy have had to stand against the stiff wind of injustice, inequality and ignorance.
An African American, Rosa Parks; or a Latino, Cesar Chavez; or a suffragette, Susan B. Anthony; or a gay San Franciscan, Harvey Milk — they were all people who spoke out, stood their ground for justice and equality. And their diverse voices, raised throughout different times in history, were all forcefully united in their subscription to the ideals of our democracy …
To this distinguished list of people that spoke up we add another name, an Asian American name, Fred Korematsu. He was a Japanese American, born in Oakland, right across the bay from us here. He stood against the awesome might of the government of the United States.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor … Overnight American citizens of Japanese ancestry were looked on with suspicion and fear and outright hatred, simply because we looked like those who bombed Pearl Harbor. Despite that, young Japanese Americans … rushed like all young Americans to their recruitment centers to volunteer to serve in the military.
This act of patriotism was answered with a slap in the face. They were denied military service and categorized as enemy “non-aliens.” It is outrageous to call people who are volunteering to fight for this country, perhaps even die for this country, as the enemy. But that insult was compounded by that second word, “non-alien” … That’s a citizen defined in the negative. They even took the word “citizen” away from us …
This was shortly followed by a military-ordered curfew. All Japanese Americans were confined to their homes from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. And then Japanese Americans made another chilling discovery. Their bank accounts had been frozen. They couldn’t access their savings for even the money they needed for daily expenses …
On Feb. 19, 1942, the president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered all Japanese Americans on the West Coast to be summarily rounded up with no charges, with no trial. The central pillar of our justice system, due process, disappeared. We were to be rounded up and imprisoned in 10 barbed-wire prison camps in some of the most god-forsaken places in the country …
Fred Korematsu was not going to have any of that. He refused to go. Fred was a young man in love. He had a girlfriend. She was white, and internment meant being torn away from her. And Fred knew something about his inalienable rights. He knew about his right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and for him, happiness was being with his girlfriend. He refused to go, and for that he was arrested and thrown into jail …
Into this scene comes another extraordinary American, a man named Ernest Besig. He was the executive director of the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He was in conflict with the National ACLU, which was closely aligned with the Roosevelt Administration. They had urged Besig to not contest the internment. Yet despite that, Ernest Besig went and visited Fred Korematsu in prison and he asked him to serve as the plaintiff in a test case challenging the internment.
Fred immediately agreed, and Besig put Fred Korematsu together with a fiery civil rights attorney, a passionate defender of the Constitution, Wayne Collins, who defended not only Fred Korematsu but thousands of Japanese Americans during the war and long after the war. He is another extraordinary American hero. The combination of Korematsu, Besig and Collins became a formidable force …
They challenged the internment all the way up to the Supreme Court … and in 1944, with the war still raging on, with a 6-to-3 vote the Supreme Court ruled against Fred Korematsu and upheld the internment. It was a shameful ruling that the Supreme Court made.
But the story wasn’t over yet, because years after the end of the war, a critical bit of information was unearthed. It was suppressed by government attorneys after the 1944 ruling. It was a report made by military intelligence finding that Japanese Americans presented no threat to American national security …
So Fred again got galvanized, this time with a team of young, sharp attorneys spearheaded by an outstanding San Francisco lawyer, Dale Minami. And they challenged it, and in federal district court, the original (conviction) was vacated … That 1944 ruling still exists … but in essence, Fred Korematsu won. The Constitution prevailed. It was a powerful moment and it was Fred’s determination and tenaciousness and the brilliance of his attorney team that brought that about.
There are important lessons today still to be learned from that ruling. We live in another time of tension, an age of terrorism … We have in the United States many generations of Arab Americans. Some are Muslim. Not all Arab Americans are Muslim. And yet they look (to others) like terrorists.
There is an important lesson to be learned from Fred Korematsu’s challenge. In the Japanese lexicon, there is a phrase, shikata ga nai — nothing can be done. When the internment came about, so many Japanese Americans went into imprisonment under the philosophy of shikata ga nai. Fred didn’t believe in that notion. He stood up. He spoke out.
This was in the great classic American tradition … of suffragettes who marched for equality for women … of the African Americans who struggled for civil rights, and in the same tradition that Harvey Milk fought for equality and the gay liberation movement. This is what makes America strong — people who have faith in our ideals and the guts to stand up for them.
Fred Korematsu … was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things, and with that he made history. He was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This day, Jan. 30, has been deemed by the State of California as Fred Korematsu Day. So on this, the 10th anniversary of his passing, we honor him and take pride in his contribution to making our country a better, truer, stronger democracy.
Photos by Stevan Nordstrom Photography