Fred Korematsu’s fight for liberty should inspire us all
In a stratified culture, national heroes can be hard to find.
Here in the United States of America, Fred Korematsu is surely a hero for us all.
Korematsu — born in Oakland in 1919, died in Marin County in 2005 — was an activist against the insufferable forced internment of all Japanese Americans during World War II ever since he first went into hiding in the Bay Area after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
He had faced discrimination before the government tried to force him into the camps. Rejected from military service at the beginning of the war, he got work instead as a welder at a shipyard — until he was let go from that because of his Japanese descent. Unable to hold other jobs because of anti-Japanese hysteria, he resorted to plastic surgery on his eyelids in an attempt to “pass,” calling himself “Clyde Sarah.”
After he refused internment, Korematsu was arrested and held in a San Francisco jail. To its great credit, the Northern California branch of the ACLU heard about the arrest and asked Korematsu to be a test case in its legal action against the federal government. Scandalously, the national ACLU, whose leadership was close to President Franklin Roosevelt, chose to support the White House orders.
Opposing the mass detention, the young Korematsu said that “people should have a fair trial and a chance to defend their loyalty at court in a democratic way, because in this situation, people were placed in imprisonment without any fair trial.”
Eloquence entirely aside, Korematsu was tried and convicted in federal court, sentenced to five years’ probation and sent with his family to the Central Utah War Relocation Center in Topaz, Utah, where he lived in a horse stall with one light bulb. He later said: “jail was better than this.”
Again facing workplace discrimination after the war, Korematsu for a time fought anti-Asian discrimination in his country, then despaired of it. He stayed quiet for 30 years, never telling his children about his plight. A UC San Diego professor got in touch, and in 1983 a judge formally vacated his conviction. President Bill Clinton properly awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In California, Jan. 30 is Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution. Today, and every day, celebrate his fierce struggle for liberty.