State honors ex-internee's fight for justice
Had he been alive, Fred Korematsu would have turned 92 on Jan. 30. He died in 2005, but this year, his birthday did not slip by unnoticed. In fact, the civil rights activist probably would have been stunned to learn that schools throughout the state had been celebrating his birthday in a big way — with a statewide holiday in his honor.
The Fred T. Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution was signed into law last September by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, with the purpose of teaching California schoolchildren about Korematsu’s story and its relevance in today’s post-9/11 world.
And the keeper of the legal details of his story — in the form of all his personal legal files and government documents — is UCLA, where Korematsu in 1999 designated these important papers that detail his fight for justice should be stored and made available for future historians and other scholars.
Korematsu was a 23-year-old shipyard worker in 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that authorized the removal and subsequent incarceration of 120,000 West Coast Japanese Americans. When the strong-willed young man refused to report to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah, he was branded a spy — arrested, convicted and thrown into jail.
With the help of American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ernest Besig, Korematsu filed an appeal that landed in the U.S. Supreme Court, but lost when the court upheld the constitutionality of the wartime relocation. Korematsu was sent to Topaz and put on probation for five years.
It wasn’t until 40 years later that Korematsu was able to clear his name with the help of a committed group of young civil rights attorneys — the Fred T. Korematsu v. U.S. Coram Nobis litigation team — led by San Francisco civil rights lawyer Dale Minami and Political Science Professor Peter Irons of UC San Diego. Korematsu’s conviction was ultimately overturned by U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, who ruled that the exclusion orders of Japanese Americans were unjustified.
Korematsu and his legal team in 1999.
“The educational purpose of this collection will go on forever, I hope,” Korematsu said at the time of the donation. “When I speak at colleges, I tell the students, ‘Always talk about the internment. It can happen again if we let our guard down.’ That’s why we’ve placed the collection at UCLA, for anyone to use. We’re thankful for the opportunity.”