By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
SAN FRANCISCO — Fred Korematsu Day was celebrated in a big way on Jan. 27, with more than 500 people attending a tribute to Asian Pacific American civil rights heroes spanning over a century.
The Asian Law Caucus’ Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education held its third annual Korematsu Day event at San Francisco’s historic Herbst Theatre. The honorees, most of them recognized posthumously, included not only Japanese Americans who challenged their internment during World War II but those who distinguished themselves in other struggles, from the labor movement to the military.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said that the honorees “may not ever be mentioned in many of our books or in our conversations, yet they have to be known. Their stories have to be told because they’re part of our rich history, not only in California, not only in the United States, but they’re international heroes as well.”
Speaking as the city’s first Asian American mayor, Lee added, “If they weren’t in front of us years ago … if they didn’t speak up for what’s right in the face of so many things that were wrong, we would not be here.”
Before presenting a proclamation declaring Jan. 27 as “Fred Korematsu Heroes Celebration Day in San Francisco,” Lee quoted President Obama as saying that equality is “self-evident” but not “self-executing” and said, “We have to join together and get that done. We have to inspire our own kids to follow our example.”
Actor Danny Glover (“Lethal Weapon,” “The Color Purple,” “2012”) served as emcee. He has been a social justice activist since he was a student at San Francisco State University, where he helped establish the nation’s first ethnic studies department as a member of the Third World Liberation Front.
“When I grew up … a great deal of my life was in close proximity to the Japanese community,” Glover recalled. “I remember my football team, the quarterback of my team at George Washington High School was Japanese American. The right guard was Chinese American. And I sat on the bench.”
Glover remembered starring in Bay Area playwright Philip Kan Gotanda’s “Yohen,” “which we did in Los Angeles and had groups from the Asian American community, the African American community, and all communities come to that play. I had the opportunity to be part of that, and part of that experience is being born and raised and still living in San Francisco.”
The actor also paid tribute to Yori Wada (1916-1997), who led such organizations as the Buchanan YMCA and the Western Addition Community Organization (WACO). “The impact that he had on so many of us, primarily African American young boys, was extraordinary … If you could take a survey of those young boys who are now men, some in their 60s like me, they would testify to the impact that Yori Wada had on their lives as well. And to see him there in the middle of the community as the community grappled with the dynamics of redevelopment was a testimony to his building bridges and bringing people together.”
Glover introduced a series of short videos about the honorees, beginning with “the brave men and women who stood up during one of the darkest times in our nation’s history, the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans … Here are the four individuals who challenged the incarceration all the way to the Supreme Court, as well as three groups, the no-nos, the draft resisters and the renunciants, who all in their own way stood up for justice.”
Fred Korematsu (1919-2005), a native of Oakland, was arrested and convicted of defying the government’s internment orders in 1942 at the age of 23, and appealed his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court with the help of the ACLU of Northern California. The court ruled against him in 1944, accepting the government’s argument of military necessity, but the case was reopened on the basis of new evidence and a federal judge vacated Korematsu’s conviction in 1983.
For the rest of his life, Korematsu traveled across the country as an advocate for civil rights. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1998 and spoke out against discriminatory treatment of Arab and Muslim Americans after 9/11.
His daughter, Karen, co-founder of the Korematsu Institute, accepted the honor on his behalf. His son, Ken, was also in attendance.
Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012), who was born and raised in Washington state, turned himself in to the FBI to protest curfew and internment orders directed against Japanese Americans. The Supreme Court ruled against him in 1943 and his conviction was finally vacated in 1987. He also opposed the loyalty questionnaire imposed on internees.
Accepting on Hirabayashi’s behalf was his son. In the video, Jay Hirabayashi said of his father, “I don’t think he considered himself to be acting courageously … He had been raised in schools to be taught that everyone was equal under law. And he believed in that. When the war broke out and he was told that he had to be in his home after 8 o’clock, and none of his classmates had to be under the same restriction, he just intuitively knew that it was wrong.”
Minoru Yasui (1916-1986) was born in Oregon and graduated from the University of Oregon’s law school. After Pearl Harbor, his efforts to report for duty as a member of the Army Reserve were rejected. In 1942, he deliberately violated the curfew and asked to be arrested. The Supreme Court ruled against him when he appealed his conviction. After the war he became a civil rights leader in Denver and was active in the redress movement.
In the video, Yasui’s youngest daughter, Holly, said, “My father’s actions represented a refusal to go along or to let unchallenged a terrible injustice … He poked and prodded the conscience of the people of the United States until redress legislation was passed … He would say to children today what he said to me when I was a child: ‘We are born in this world for a purpose, and that is to make it a better place.’”
Accepting for Yasui were his granddaughters, Chani Hawkins-Walker and Serena Hawkins.
Mitsuye Endo (1920-2006) was born in Sacramento and was incarcerated at Tule Lake and Topaz. A habeas corpus petition was filed on her behalf, and in 1944 the Supreme court ruled that since Endo’s loyalty was not in question, the government could not continue to detain her, but it did not rule on the constitutionality of the internment itself. She spent the rest of her life in Chicago.
Accepting for Endo were her children, Wayne Tsutsumi and Wendy Weiner. In the video, Tsutsumi recalled when his mother was honored in 2008 by the Japanese American Bar Association in Los Angeles. “I was thinking, gosh, if Mom was here, she would just sit there and smile and probably think, ‘Thank you very much for recognizing me, but not just me, but I did it for everybody.’ That’s probably what she would think, ‘I did it for all of us.’”
The internment dissenters were represented by San Francisco author and actor Hiroshi Kashiwagi, who answered “no-no” to the loyalty questionnaire and was sent to Tule Lake. “It was absurd the way they were questioning our loyalty, and after they put us in prison without any cause,” he said in the video. “I was just following my conscience. That my rights were being violated. I thought it was unjust. You should know what it is to be an American, and to know the Constitution, the rights that are guaranteed for each of its citizens.”
Sue Ko Lee and other employees of the National Dollar Store factory in San Francisco Chinatown joined the Chinese Ladies Garment Workers Union Local 361 and were involved in a 15-week strike in 1938 that resulted in a raise and better working conditions. Accepting for Lee, who remained active in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, was her son, Mervyn.
One of the strikers, 98-year-old Mabel Fong, was present and was given a round of applause.
Philip Vera Cruz (1904-1994) moved to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1926 and became a farm worker and labor organizer in the California in the 1940s. In 1965, he was active in the Agricultural Worker Organizing Committee’s decision to strike against grape growers in Delano and won the support of Cesar Chavez and the National farm Workers of America, which merged with AWOC to form the United Farm Workers. Accepting on his behalf was his nephew, Fernando Gapasin.
Larry Itliong (1913-1977), who was born in the Philippines and came to the U.S. in 1929, founded the Filipino Farm Labor Union in California in 1956 and organized the 1965 Delano Grape Strike and national boycott. He was assistant director of the UFW under Chavez. Accepting on his behalf was his son, Johnny Itliong.
Queen Lili’uokalani (1838-1917) ascended the throne in 1891 and attempted to pass a new constitution, but opposition forces overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. In 1895, she was arrested after Hawaiian royalists attempted to restore her to power. In 1993, the U.S. government formally apologized to Native Hawaiians for its actions. No representative of the queen’s family was able to attend the event.
Activist, writer and speaker Grace Lee Boggs, who is 97 and living in Detroit, was unable to attend. A daughter of Chinese immigrants, she was married to African American civil rights and labor leader James Boggs (1919-1993).
“I’m a long-time admirer and I kind of see myself as one of her students in a sense … She has to be one of the great, great leaders, activists of the 20th century,” Glover said of Boggs, adding, “Imagine these two people: Grace Lee Boggs with a doctor’s degree in philosophy and Jimmy Boggs, who comes out of a tradition of sharecroppers and organizers, and the union they formed in Detroit, which is still alive … bringing people together.”
Glover wrote the foreword for Boggs’ book “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century” (co-authored with Scott Kurashige).
Political activist Yuri Kochiyama, 91, was unable to attend and was represented by her daughter, Audee Kochiyama Holman. Born in San Pedro and interned in Jerome, Ark., Kochiyama became an activist in Harlem in the 1960s, participating in the Asian American, black and Third World movements, and was a friend of Malcolm X. She was supported political prisoners and was active in the redress movement.
In the video, her daughter said that Kochiyama “always had passion for helping people” and believed in working in solidarity with other groups to achieve civil and human rights.
Race in the Courts Heroes
Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco Chinatown in 1873. He visited China in 1894 and was denied re-entry into the U.S. the following year because he was of Chinese descent. He appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1898 that U.S.-born descendants of immigrants could not be denied citizenship, regardless of ethnicity. Accepting on his behalf was his grandson, Norman Wong; his granddaughter, Sandra Wong; and Norman’s wife, Maureen.
Bhagat Singh Thind (1892-1967), born in India, arrived in the U.S. in 1913 and served with the U.S. Army during World War I. He applied for U.S. citizenship in 1920 but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 923 that he and other “Hindus” were “aliens ineligible to citizenship.” He later gained citizenship due to his status as a World War I veteran. Accepting on his behalf was his son, David Thind.
Mamie Tape (1876-1972), a daughter of immigrants, was denied admission at a San Francisco public school in 1884. Her parents sued the Board of Education and the California Supreme Court ruled in their favor, but the state established separate schools for “Chinese or Mongolian” children to avoid integration. Accepting on her behalf was her niece, Alisa Kim.
“From the Tuskegee Airmen … to the gay soldiers who weren’t permitted to reveal their sexual orientation until 2011, to the women who until last week were not considered for combat roles, there are members of our military who have fought battles on multiple fronts,” said Glover. “Today we honor two such groups.”
The Japanese American veterans of World War II were represented by Asa Hanamoto, who was interned at Tule Lake, served with the Military Intelligence Service, and attended the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony with other Nisei soldiers in Washington, D.C. in 2011. “To the younger people coming up in the world, persevere — as they say in the 442nd, go for broke,” he said in the video. “You really have to set your goal and really strive for it … even though you may encounter some obstacles.”
Thousands of Filipino soldiers served alongside U.S. troops in the Pacific with the promise of U.S. citizenship and full benefits. However, in 1946, Congress passed the Rescission Act, which took back that promise. Ever since, the veterans have fought for their benefits, and were partly successful when a bill signed by President Obama in 2009 provided one lump-sum payment.
Alberto Villa Delgado Saldajeno represented the veteranos. All Japanese American and Filipino veterans in the audience were asked to stand.
Entertainment was provided by Jasmine Trias, an “American Idol” finalist and a headliner in Las Vegas. “I had an opportunity to meet some of our heroes earlier and I just want to say thank you so much for all that you have done for our people and for our country,” she said. “It truly is an honor to be here to pay tribute to you.
Appropriately, the song she sang was Mariah Carey’s “Hero.”
Dream Come True
Ling Woo Liu, director of the Korematsu Institute, said the event was “a dream come true” for the organizers, who celebrated the first Korematsu Day and launched their curriculum program in January 2011. One of the recipients of a free Korematsu teaching kit, second-grade teacher Jeri Aratani at Lone Tree Elementary School in Antioch, asked if the institute had a poster of Asian American civil rights heroes.
“That’s when we decided that we would produce such a poster,” Liu said. “ … We decided to focus on an earlier generation of heroes who helped pave the way for the many civil rights leaders we are fortunate to have leading our community today. But not only did we want to produce a poster to share the stories of these heroes with educators … We also wanted to find the heroes.”
The honorees’ family members were tracked down through the National Archives, Ancestry.com, Facebook, the White Pages and other resources. Liu thanked Winnie Wong, who produced the videos, and all the individuals and organizations that helped with the search.
Karen Korematsu said that giving a talk at Cherryland Elementary School in Hayward the week before was a heartwarming experience. When asked to list the traits that made Fred Korematsu a hero, the students came up with such words as “brave,” “determined,” “caring” and “honest.”
“It’s difficult to believe that it’s almost eight years ago since my father passed away,” Karen Korematsu said, noting that since then three public schools have been named after him; the Fred Korematsu Center for Law and Equality has been established at Seattle University School of Law and the Fred T. Korematsu Professorship of the Law and Social Justice at University of Hawaii (with Eric Yamamoto, a member of the Korematsu legal team, named to that post); and Fred Korematsu Day in California has been established in perpetuity.
“Now we can say that there are 30 celebrations in 11 states of Fred Korematsu Day and a lot of them have done this on their own,” she said. “So as I crisscross the United States and I speak to teachers, national educators, schools, organizations, I say that my goal is to someday have Fred Korematsu Day in every state and ultimately have a national day of recognition.”
“My father said when you see something wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up,” Korematsu said before asking the heroes to come up on stage and sign a copy of the poster.
For more information on the institute, visit www.korematsuinstitute.org
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo