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A civil rights hero gets his day

COLUMN ONE

Fred Korematsu, a young man who refused to be hauled away during World War II because of his heritage, took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Now, six years after his death, a statewide holiday honors his courage.

January 31, 2011|By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Hayward, Calif.

Twenty-nine eager fifth-grade faces stare up at Ines Trinh between recess and lunch one day last week. The children have been studying stories about perseverance in the face of pain; "Give It All You've Got," the lesson's catchy theme, is printed in big letters on a poster in Room 21.

The teacher has just read her young students at Lorenzo Manor Elementary School a book called "The Bracelet." It's the story of Emi, a Berkeley second-grader sent to an internment camp during World War II just because she was Japanese American. New vocabulary words: "Injustice." "Inequality."

And finally, "resist." Because fictional Emi's story is followed by the true tale of Fred Korematsu, a young man who refused to be rounded up and hauled away because of his heritage. Who was arrested. Who fought the government and lost. And finally, 40 years later, who fought the government and won.

"Raise your hand if you've ever seen or felt like something was not right," Trinh asks her students. More than a dozen hands shoot up. "Now, put your hand up if you actually did something about it."

There are knitted brows, furtive glances and a long pause. Trinh nods, sympathetic. This is, after all, a lesson on courage, on one of history's tragic chapters, an introduction to a brand-new hero.

And, along with it, a new holiday.

Korematsu, a Medal of Freedom recipient who died in 2005, would have turned 92 on Sunday. Instead, schools throughout the state are celebrating the first Fred T. Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution. Signed into law last September by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, it is believed to be the first statewide holiday honoring an Asian American anywhere in the country. A nascent effort is underway for a federal Korematsu Day.

At the heart of this month's celebrations is the idea of resilience, that a great country can correct its mistakes and an ordinary man can make a difference.

Or as Trinh tells her class: "I see things sometimes that are not right, but I don't always have the courage to do something about it. When we think about heroes, people like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Fred Korematsu, these are people who actually spoke up and did something about it."

****

Korematsu, then 22, was with his girlfriend in the hills above San Francisco Bay when the music on his car radio stopped and his world changed. The Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor.

He had already faced discrimination because of his ancestry, a union that kicked him out, restaurants that wouldn't serve him, barbers who wouldn't cut his hair. He'd tried to enlist twice but was turned away by a military that changed his draft status to "4C" — enemy alien — even though he had been born and raised in Oakland.

Four months after Pearl Harbor, Korematsu's family was sent to Tanforan Racetrack, where they awaited transfer to an internment camp. Korematsu refused to go.

Instead, he changed his name to Clyde Sarah, got minor plastic surgery on his eyes so he wouldn't look so Japanese, said he was of Spanish and Hawaiian descent. He and his girlfriend, who was white, would move to Nevada, he figured, outside of the coastal military zone where Japanese residents were banned. They would be safe.

He was, after all, an American citizen, and "I didn't think the government would go as far as to include American citizens to be interned without a hearing," he recounted in a 2000 documentary.

But on May 30, 1942, Korematsu was arrested on a street corner in San Leandro and sent to jail in San Francisco. He was found guilty of violating military orders and sent to Tanforan to await internment, and he ended up at a camp in Utah.

"The horse stalls that we stayed in were made for horses, not human beings," he would tell a judge nearly 40 years later, describing the "shame" and "embarrassment" of "all Japanese American citizens who were escorted to concentration camps."

With the help of the Northern California ACLU, Korematsu appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court — and lost, 6 to 3, in 1944. The government argued that internment was not based on racism and that the Army had proof that Japanese residents were signaling enemy ships and prone to disloyalty.

But in an angry dissent, Justice Robert Jackson said the government's evidence was lacking and declared that "the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination."

****

Karen Korematsu was sitting in class at San Lorenzo High School listening to her friend Maya Okada give a book report. It was 1967, and they were juniors at the East Bay campus, a sprawling 2,500-student school with so few Japanese Americans you could count them on one hand.

Maya "got up in class and was talking about the Japanese American concentration camps and everyone being put into these camps, and then she mentioned this famous Supreme Court case, Korematsu vs. the United States," recounts Karen, now 60. "I got 35 pairs of eyes looking at me."

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