Celebrate Fred Korematsu Day
The ACLU, the Japanese American Citizens League, the Japanese Historical Society of San Diego, and SDSU’s Nikkei Student Union invite you to attend
Fred Korematsu Day
of Civil Liberties and the Constitution
1:00 – 4:00 p.m.
San Diego State University
Room ENS 280 (Exercise & Nutritional Sciences)
Free Film Screening:
Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story
Panel Discussion following the film
Judge James Stiven,United States Magistrate Judge (Ret.)
Prof. Susan Hasegawa, San Diego City College history professor
Prof. Edward Heck, San Diego State University political science professor
Joyce Temporal, office of Assemblymember Marty Block
Fred Korematsu was born in Oakland in 1919. When the United States entered World War II, he tried to enlist in the U.S. National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard, but was turned down because of his Japanese ancestry. He assisted in the war effort by becoming a welder, but was summarily fired, once again because of his ancestry. As this was happening, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the U.S. military to remove 120,000 people of Japanese descent – most of whom were American citizens – from their homes and force them into American prison camps.
Korematsu defied the order. He tried to deflect attention, changing his appearance and his name, but was still arrested in May 1942. While incarcerated, he was visited by Ernest Besig, the director of the San Francisco office of the American Civil Liberties Union, who asked if he was willing to become the test case to challenge the constitutionality of the government’s imprisonment of Japanese Americans. He agreed, but was convicted in federal court for violating the military orders issued under Executive Order 9066, and was placed on probation and sent to Tanforan – one of the former horseracing tracks where Japanese Americans were first held before being sent to the more permanent American concentration camps.
Korematsu and the ACLU appealed his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In December 1944, the court ruled against him in a 6-3 decision, calling his incarceration a “military necessity” that was not caused by racism but was justified by the Army’s claims that Japanese Americans were radio-signaling enemy ships from shore and were “prone to disloyalty.” In one of three stinging dissents, Justice Robert Jackson complained about the lack of any evidence to justify the camps, writing:
“…[T]he Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination…The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of urgent need.”
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed a special commission to review the facts and circumstances around the incarcerations. That commission concluded that the decision to remove people of Japanese ancestry to U.S. prison camps occurred because of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
With this finding, and upon discovery of governmental misconduct in prosecuting Korematsu’s case, his criminal conviction for defying incarceration was overturned in 1983. In a statement to the district court that day, Korematsu said:
“According to the Supreme Court decision regarding my case, being an American citizen was not enough. They say you have to look like one, otherwise they say you can’t tell a difference between a loyal and a disloyal American. I thought that this decision was wrong and I still feel that way. As long as my record stands in federal court, any American citizen can be held in prison or concentration camps without a trial or a hearing. That is if they look like the enemy of our country. Therefore, I would like to see the government admit that they were wrong and do something about it so this will never happen again to any American citizen of any race, creed or color.”
Although Judge Marilyn Hall Patel’s ruling that day cleared Korematsu’s conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1944 ruling still stands. It would require a similar test case, involving a mass banishment of a single ethnic group, to challenge the original Supreme Court decision.
After the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Korematsu spoke out, filing a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf Muslim inmates being held at Guantanamo Bay (Shafia Rasul v. George W. Bush and Khaled A.F. Al Odah v. United States of America), warning that the government’s extreme national security measures were reminiscent of the past.