By ZEINAB NAJM
DEARBORN — “Civil rights activist,” “brave” and “hero” were just three of the terms used to describe Fred Korematsu during a ceremony Feb. 1 at Dearborn High School.
Students spent their afternoon learning about Korematsu, who made history by refusing to go to the U.S. government’s incarceration camps.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proclaimed Jan. 30 as Fred Korematsu Day in the state writing, “Whereas, the state of Michigan is pleased to join the Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission, Dearborn Public Schools and the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council in recognizing the late Fred T. Korematsu.”
Ronald Hwang, Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission Commissioner and University of Michigan Department of American Culture Adjunct Instructor, was joined by Department of American Culture Adjunct Instructor Ronald Hwang, Michigan Department of Civil Rights Director Agustin Arbulu, U-M Department of American Culture Adjunct Instructor Ron Aramaki and former Rohwer Camp (Arkansas) internee Mary Kamidoi who all gave their point of views on Korematsu’s legacy.
“We remember Fred Korematsu for his bravery, his dedication to justice and his devotion to ensure that no other community faces injustices of incarceration and violation of equal protection due process,” Hwang said. “We should remember a quote from Fred, ‘If you have the feeling that something is wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up.’”
“Today in Michigan and throughout our country, civil rights is more important than ever,” Arbulu said. “When communities or individuals who are any different are under attack, speak up and don’t stay silent. An attack on any one of us is an attack on all of us. Fred Korematsu is among the most important civil rights figures in our country and yet little is known about this fine, fine man.”
In December 1941, the surprise attack by Japan on the naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii during World War II claimed the lives of 2,400 sailors. Two months later President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order calling for the removal of any resident enemy aliens from military territory in the West, according to History.com.
Roosevelt was pressured by political military advisors to address the county’s fear of continued Japanese sabotage or attack, inducing espionage from Italian and German Americans.
The 10 incarceration camps were located in Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Arkansas, California, Utah and Idaho with the most of the 117,000 detainees being Japanese.
Korematsu’s family was sent to the Tanforan Detention Center in San Bruno, Calif., to spend their days living in horse stables at the former race track before they were moved.
While his family obeyed the order, Korematsu was arrested in San Leandro, Calif., in May 1942. During his time in jail, the director of the San Francisco office of the American Civil Liberties Union, Earnest Besig, asked Korematsu if he was willing to become the test case to challenge the constitutionality of the government’s imprisonment of Japanese Americans, according to the Korematsu Institute website.
In September 1942, Korematsu was convicted in federal court for violating orders issued under the executive order and was placed on a five-year probation living at the center with his family for several months.
Korematsu and his family were transferred to the Topaz (Utah) Relocation Center where he appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In December 1944, the court ruled 6-3 against Korematsu’ claim the discriminatory conviction went against freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, according to the institute’s website.
The war between the two countries ended when Japan surrendered in August 1945 after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japanese Americans were released from concentration camps and Korematsu moved to Detroit where his youngest bother lived.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed a special commission to instigate a federal review of the facts and circumstances around the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II which concluded that “the decisions to remove those of Japanese ancestry to U.S. prison camps occurred because of race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership,” according to the institute’s website.
Shortly after, secret documents written in 1943 and 1944 by U.S. Justice Department attorney Edward Ennis, who drafted the government’s brief were found by University of California San Diego Political Science Professor Peter Irons and researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga.
During his research, Ennis found evidence that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the FCC, the Office of Naval Intelligence and other authoritative intelligence agencies categorically denied that Japanese Americans had committed any wrongdoing, according to the institute’s website.
“These official reports were never presented to the U.S. Supreme Court, having been intentionally suppressed and, in one case, destroyed by setting the report afire,” the website read.
Korematsu’s case was reopened in 1983 when U.S. District Court of Northern California in San Francisco Judge Marilyn Hall Patel overturned Korematsu’s conviction.
On Feb. 19, 1976, President Gerald Ford signed an order prohibiting the executive branch from reinstituting the “notorious and tragic World War II order,” according to History.com.
Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling that the federal government had the ability to forcibly place Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II.
In 1998, Korematsu received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Bill Clinton, according to the institute’s website. He continued to fight as a civil rights activist until his death in 2005.
For more information on Korematsu go to www.korematsuinstitute.org.
(Zeinab Najm can be reached at [email protected])