Happy Korematsu Day

by Ed Quiggle, Jr.


January 30th marks the birthday of Fred Korematsu, an American of Japanese ancestry who was indefinitely detained by the US government during World War II, and who challenged his detention in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Several states including California, Virginia, Hawaii, and Florida have declared every January 30th to be Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, and other states such as Pennsylvania, Utah, Georgia, Illinois, South Carolina, and Michigan have celebrated the holiday in recent years as well. Mr. Korematsu died in 2005, and this January 30th would have marked his 98th birthday.

On February 19th, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the Secretary of War to establish internment camps where people of Japanese ancestry, German ancestry, and Italian ancestry, including American citizens, would be held until the end of the war. On May 3rd, 1942, General John L. DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Area, ordered Japanese Americans to report to Assembly Centers by May 9th, 1942. Fred Korematsu refused to comply with this unconstitutional order, and attempted to evade capture and internment, even getting plastic surgery to try and make him appear caucasian. Mr. Korematsu was eventually arrested on a street corner in San Leandro, California on May 30th, 1942, and was held at a San Francisco jail.

While the ACLU was initially unsure of challenging the internment of Americans, fearing their organization would be perceived badly during wartime, they eventually decided to use Mr. Korematsu’s  case to test the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066. Fred 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.” On September 8th, 1942 Korematsu was convicted by a federal court for violating a law which made it a crime to violate military orders issued under Executive Order 9066, and was sentenced to 5 years probation. He was then transferred to the Tanforan Assembly Center, and subsequently sent to the Central Utah War Relocation Center. Mr. Korematsu was placed in a horse stall with a single lightbulb, conditions which Korematsu remarked were worse than jail.

Korematsu’s appealed his case, and eventually the Supreme Court decided to review the case on March 27th, 1944. On December 18th, 1944, the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, ruled that while the internment was constitutionally suspect, it was justified under the wartime circumstances. The court’s decision in Korematsu v. United States has gone down as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in history. In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed a proclamation formally terminating Executive Order 9066, and apologizing for the internment.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed a special commission to investigate the internment program, and concluded that the internment occurred because of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” In 1983, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of U.S. District Court in San Francisco formally vacated Mr. Korematsu’s conviction. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided financial redress of $20,000 to each surviving detainee. President Bill Clinton awarded Fred Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. After the attacks of September 11th, 2001, Mr. Korematsu spoke out against allowing similar indefinite detention to happen to people of middle eastern descent. He also submitted two amicus curiae briefs in a Supreme Court case involving people detained at Guantanamo Bay.

The story of Fred Korematsu is one which Americans must not forget. Korematsu’s story is especially relevant this year with President Trump issuing his own Executive Order which has caused American residents and members of the US armed forces to be detained at airports, and refused entry back into the United States. The unconstitutional power to seize Americans without probable cause and without a warrant is one which the President still has to this day, thanks to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012. We urge you to celebrate Korematsu Day and to join us in helping to Restore the Fourth!

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