A Forty Year Struggle for Vindication

Fred Korematsu was born in California in 1919 to parents who came to America from Japan in 1905. His family had a flower nursery. As a young man, he experienced considerable racism. He was drafted into military service in 1940 but was rejected for serious health reasons. He trained to be a welder in a shipyard but was fired because of his heritage. After Pearl Harbor, he could no longer find employment.

When Japanese Americans were ordered to assemble for transfer to internment camps, Fred went into hiding. He was eventually arrested. When the California Branch of the ACLU learned of his arrest, they asked him to be a test case for the legality of FDR’s executive order sending Japanese-Americans to internment camps. He agreed, but the national head of the ACLU discouraged the continuation of the case. In spite of the national ACLU pressure, the case continued.

Although Fred posted bail, he was rearrested, tried, and convicted in a federal court, and sent to an internment camp. While in the camp, his fellow detainees would not recognize him for fear of retribution.

Fred appealed his detainment all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but his appeals were rejected. When he was finally released from the camp after the war, he was not allowed to return to his home. He continued to experience racism and was fired from a job when he complained about being paid half of what whites were being paid.

He remained quiet about his treatment for 30 years. When President Ford reversed FDR’s executive order, Fred finally felt some vindication. Subsequently, Presidents Carter and Reagan signed legislation that addressed the shameful acts of detaining Japanese-Americans.

In the 1980’s it was discovered that the U.S. Solicitor General had suppressed FBI reports that Japanese-Americans posed no national security threat. Fred’s conviction was overturned by a U.S. District Court. This came 40 years after his original conviction. However, the Supreme Court never overrode its original opinion.

Fred became an activist for the illegal detainment of others, especially following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. He helped prepare legal briefs in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

President Bill Clinton awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Fred saying: “In the long history of our country’s constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls – Plessy, Brown, Parks…to that distinguished list, today we add the name of Fred Korematsu.”

While Fred has been honored at many levels, his story is not known by most Americans. The lesson all of us should learn from this is that American ideals should never be eroded, no matter how justified they may seem to some.

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            “Protest, but not with violence, and don’t be afraid to speak up. One person can make a difference, even if it takes 40 years.”– Fred Korematsu

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