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A civil rights hero gets his day

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

After class, the perplexed girl asked her friend what she'd been talking about. "I thought you knew," Maya responded. "I think this is about your father." When Karen got home that afternoon, she confronted her mother. Maya had been right.

Her father, by then a structural draftsman, had never told his children about the internment camps and the court cases. With a conviction on his record — misdemeanor or no — he had trouble getting work. He never shook the shame.

"There was a whole community that went through this shameful experience, and all they wanted to do was prove they were loyal Americans and get on with their lives," Karen said. "He felt that weight of losing that case on his shoulders all those years."

What Karen also didn't know was that her father had never given up hope of somehow clearing his name.

He would get that chance when he was 63.


Peter Irons, historian and lawyer, decided in 1981 to write a book about three cases that stemmed from Japanese internment and went to the Supreme Court. Korematsu's was the most famous.

Irons had planned a "standard academic book," he said recently, which would explain how the Supreme Court "made such terrible decisions in this case, especially when so many of the justices were so liberal."

After he found the Department of Justice records on the cases, the first document he looked at, he said, was "the smoking gun."

To prosecute Korematsu, Irons said, the Department of Justice had relied upon a report by Gen. John DeWitt, who had carried out the evacuation of Japanese residents in big swaths of the West. It declared that they "had committed acts of espionage and sabotage."

But Edward Ennis, a Justice Department lawyer, was suspicious and contacted the FBI, the Federal Communications Commission and military intelligence. They told him that there was no evidence of such acts. Ennis laid it all out in a memo, which was ignored.

Until Irons found it.

With that memo and another document discovered by researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, Irons contacted San Francisco lawyer Dale Minami, co-founder of the Asian Law Caucus. They put together a team of young, largely sansei attorneys and offered to represent Korematsu for free.

At one point, Department of Justice lawyers offered Korematsu a pardon if he would drop his suit against the government.

"It meant that you admit the guilt of your actions, but we'll remove any penalties," Minami said. The Korematsus said, "'We're not going to take a pardon from the government. We should be the ones pardoning the government.' "

On Nov. 10, 1983, in front of federal court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, Minami argued that Korematsu's case before the Supreme Court had been based on fraud and racism.

Then Korematsu spoke. A quiet, humble man, he picked his words well.

"According to the Supreme Court decision regarding my case," he told Patel, "being an American citizen was not enough. They say you have to look like one; otherwise they say you can't tell the difference between a loyal and a disloyal American.

"I thought that this decision was wrong, and I still feel that way," he continued. "As long as my record stands in federal court, any American citizen can be held in prison or concentration camps without a trial or a hearing. That is, if they look like the enemy of our country."

The 1944 Supreme Court decision, though discredited, still stands, but Patel overturned Korematsu's conviction that very day.

Korematsu spent his final years as a civil rights activist, his main goal to teach and remind. Not long after his death, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Lillian Y. Lim began worrying that his legacy "was disappearing in our national conscience."

So she created a committee, enlisted her law students and pushed for a holiday. Co-sponsored by Assemblymen Warren Furutani (D-Gardena) and Marty Block (D-San Diego), it passed the state Legislature unanimously.


In a DVD that Trinh shows her class this day, Korematsu talked about the pain of internment, about how he felt like "a prisoner of war in his own country," how stunned he was to lose the Supreme Court case and how equally dumbfounded he was to have his record cleared.

Near the end of class discussion, Joseph Rodriguez raises his hand. Something has been bothering him.

"Why didn't Fred Korematsu just work something out with the government?"

"Sometimes the government doesn't like to listen," Trinh says. "Fred Korematsu made the government listen."

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