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Karen Korematsu asks Michigan to honor her father's fight for civil liberties

Jan 29, 2016

Fred Korematsu, seated center, at a 1983 press conference announcing the reopening of his Supreme Court case
Credit flickr user keithpr / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

We’ve all been hearing a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric recently. Everything from banning all Muslims from the country to halting the flow of Syrian refugees.

This week, Karen Korematsu has been in Michigan sharing her father’s story from a similar time of fear and confusion.

During World War II, Fred Korematsu refused to comply with the order that put about 120,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps. He has become a symbol of resistance to what is now seen as a shameful time in America.

Karen Korematsu wants Michigan to be among the states to officially commemorate January 30 as Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution.

According to Korematsu, her father thought of himself first as an American citizen. “He couldn’t believe that American citizens would be ordered to be imprisoned without any due process of law,” she says.

“He just wanted to get on with his life. He had done nothing wrong, so why should he be incarcerated just because he looked like the enemy?”

"He couldn't believe that American citizens would be ordered to be imprisoned without any due process of law."

Korematsu’s father was eventually arrested in the San Francisco Bay area. She tells us that his case was taken up by executive director of the ACLU of Northern California Ernest Besig, who had been looking for a test case “because he thought it was unconstitutional since everyone’s due process had been violated.”

The process took several years before eventually being heard by the Supreme Court on December 18, 1944.

Korematsu tells us her father “truly believed” that by the time his case got to the high court, they would see that the internment of Japanese-Americans was unconstitutional. He was “disheartened” and “disgusted” when the court ruled six to three against him.

“But it wasn’t unanimous,” Korematsu says, “and that’s the important point. In fact, Justice Murphy of Michigan was one of the dissenting positions.”

Her father went on to challenge his conviction and that ruling in the 1980s. Though she wasn’t fully aware of it growing up, her father’s federal prison record had worked against him when finding employment and housing. “My father had never given up hope that someday he could reopen his Supreme Court case because he clearly felt that the government was wrong and that he was right in what he had done.”

Korematsu’s father was eventually able to challenge the ruling in the ‘80s thanks to a piece of evidence turned up by University of California, San Diego professor Peter Irons while researching the World War II Supreme Court cases.

"This file ... proved there was no military necessity for the Japanese-Americans to be forcibly removed from their homes."

“He was looking through some files and found, actually in the Immigration and Alien Department, a box that hadn’t been opened in 40 years. And right on the top of this box, that was dusty, was this file … about the Department of Justice, that proved there was no military necessity for the Japanese-Americans to be forcibly removed from their homes; that at the time of my father’s Supreme Court case, the Department of Justice had withheld evidence, had destroyed evidence and had altered evidence. So on that basis, they were able to reopen my father’s Supreme Court case.”

In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Fred Korematsu the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor. Korematsu died in 2005.

Several states have agreed to commemorate January 30 as Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution or are on their way to doing so in some capacity.

California was the first, Korematsu tells us, beginning in 2011, followed by Hawaii and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Georgia and Pennsylvania have submitted resolutions honoring the day, while Florida and South Carolina have submitted bills to their respective legislatures.

Korematsu visited with legislators this week in an effort to persuade Michigan to officially commemorate Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution each year on January 30. She tells us they were “very receptive” to the idea.