Monday, April 04, 2005

Fred Korematsu, American Hero: RIP

Fred Korematsu passed away this past March 30th at the age of 86. Korematsu led a historic fight for the rights of Japanese Americans, and by extension, all Americans. Korematsu was an American citizen by birth, born January 30th, 1919 in Oakland California. When the Japanese imperialists attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the US government responded by issuing orders for Americans of Japanese ancestry to be rounded up and placed in ten concentration camps located in isolated areas of the US. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, whole families that had made the US their home for generations suddenly became "enemy aliens." The US Army interned over 100,000 Japanese Americans from the West coast, relocating the "Japs" to desolate camps surrounded by barbed wire and machine gun guard towers. The vibrant Japanese communities up and down the West coast of the US became ghost towns as businesses, places of worship, and homes were forcefully vacated and boarded up. Fred Korematsu defied the roundups and refused to surrender himself for "relocation". He successfully evaded capture for a time until his arrest and imprisonment in 1942. The day after his arrest a newspaper ran a headline that declared, "Jap Spy Arrested in San Leandro."

Korematsu appealed his case to the US Supreme Court, arguing that it was unconstitutional for the government to incarcerate American citizens without charges, evidence or trial. In a landmark decision, the high court ruled against Korematsu in 1944, stating that the interment was a "military necessity", and that Japanese Americans were prone to disloyalty. However, Justice Jackson offered a stinging dissent, writing "…the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination…and of transplanting American citizens. The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need." The Korematsu case stood for nearly 40 years until legal researchers discovered secret Justice Department documents. The documents revealed no justification for internment. Memoranda from J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI and also from the Office of Naval Intelligence denied spying or other wrongdoings on the part of Japanese Americans. However, these documents were never presented to the Supreme Court, having been intentionally suppressed or destroyed. Pro bono attorneys successfully reopened the Korematsu case in 1983 based on this governmental misconduct. They succeeded in erasing Korematsu’s "criminal" conviction for having defied internment. During the proceedings the Justice Department offered to pardon Korematsu if he would only drop his lawsuit. He adamantly refused to do so, believing that is was the government that should seek a pardon from him and from all those Japanese Americans who had been denied their constitutional rights.

When throwing out Korematsu’s 40 year old case, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of the US District Court of the Northern District of California, wrote: "Korematsu remains on the pages of our legal and political history. As a legal precedent it is now recognized as having limited application. As a historical precedent it stands as a constant caution that in times of war or declared military necessity our institutions must be vigilant in protecting our constitutional guarantees. It stands as a caution that in times of distress the shield of military necessity and national security must not be used to protect governmental actions from close scrutiny and accountability. It stands as a caution that in times of international hostility and antagonisms our institutions, legislative, executive and judicial, must be prepared to protect all citizens from the petty fears and prejudices that are so easily aroused." In 1998, "Korematsu received the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has also been the subject of numerous documentaries including the Emmy-award winning film, Of Civil Wrongs and Rights, co-produced by filmmaker Eric Fournier and Korematsu's son, Ken Korematsu.

His daughter Karen Korematsu-Haigh actively supported Korematsu's interest in civil rights, helping to found the Korematsu Civil Rights Fund sponsored by the Asian Law Caucus, the oldest Asian American public interest law firm in the nation. Other awards include honorary doctorates from the University of San Francisco, California State University-Hayward, McGeorge School of Law, and the City University of New York Law School, and official recognition from the California State Senate. A public memorial service will be held for Fred Korematsu at the First Presbyterian Church, 2619 Broadway in Oakland California on Saturday, April 16, at 1:30 p.m. Let us never forget how Fred Korematsu resisted being stripped of his rights. His eloquent, determined, and passionate struggle to preserve and expand the rights of every American should be an inspiration to us all. Fred Korematsu… live like him! (posted by M.)