BERKELEY — Californians on Sunday observed the first official statewide day set aside to honor Fred Korematsu, who fought the World War II internment of Japanese Americans.
State lawmakers last year voted unanimously to designate Jan. 30 as Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution. The measure encourages Californians to recognize the importance of preserving civil liberties.
At Wheeler Hall on the UC Berkeley campus on Sunday, Rev. Jesse Jackson said that Korematsu’s legacy stands beside icons such as Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela.
“He should be an ever-present figure,” Jackson said. “His struggle is as real today as it was 40 years ago.”
“We’re all aware of the African American history of slavery. Latinos are emerging in the broad awareness of Cesar Chavez. The less-told story is that of Asian Americans, and that needs to change,” Jackson said.
“Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution reminds us of the enduring importance of the United States Constitution and the civil liberties it guarantees every American,” said Assemblymember Warren Furutani (D-South Los Angeles County), who was a cosponsor of the Korematsu Day legislation. “It is Korematsu’s story, and the stories of other unnamed American heroes, that demonstrates the importance of continuing to fight for the freedoms guaranteed to us by the Constitution in the hopes that it will be extended to others, no matter the extenuating circumstances.”
Korematsu, an American citizen of Japanese descent who lived in the Bay Area, refused to comply with the military exclusion order that led to the incarceration of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans and permanent residents of Japanese descent in concentration camps during World War II. He was arrested and convicted of violating the exclusion order, which affected his ability to obtain employment long after those incarcerated were allowed to leave the camps.
Although Korematsu’s conviction was upheld in 1944 by the U.S. Supreme Court, he along with a pro bono legal team composed of young Japanese American and Asian American attorneys petitioned for a writ of error coram nobis in 1983 to overturn his conviction. U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel overturned Korematsu’s conviction, and her decision acknowledged that: “A grave injustice was done to American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry who, without individual review or any probative evidence against them, were excluded, removed and detained by the United States during World War II.”
Korematsu went on to champion the cause of civil liberties, not only seeking redress for Japanese Americans who were wrongfully incarcerated, but also traveling the country to advocate for the civil rights of other victims of excessive government action, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He received the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Bill Clinton in 1998. Korematsu passed away in 2005 at the age of 86.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson on Friday urged all Californians to observe Fred Korematsu Day: “Fred Korematsu bravely resisted the grave injustice that began with the incarceration of Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and ultimately, he prevailed and helped to right one of history’s great wrongs. I urge Californians to take a moment this Sunday to study the case of Fred Korematsu so that we may learn from history and never repeat the shameful moments of our nation’s past.”
Public schools and educational institutions at every grade level are encouraged to teach Korematsu’s story as it relates to current civil liberties and constitutional rights issues. To access a teaching curriculum, go online to korematsuinstitute.org.