On March 30, 2005, America and the world lost a quiet but authentic hero in the cause of freedom. Over 60 years ago, Fred Korematsu made history by challenging the wartime relocation order against Americans of Japanese descent. And he lived to see the lessons of that experience take on fresh significance in the wake of our government’s response to the 9/11 attacks.
Born in Oakland, California, in 1919, Fred Korematsu was the son of Japanese immigrants. On December 7, 1941, he was enjoying a picnic with his girlfriend as the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor came over the radio, changing his life forever.
Ten weeks after the attack, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 9066, which ordered the internment of Japanese Americans. The Korematsu family was taken to Tanforan, a former racetrack south of San Francisco, for processing. Fred Korematsu, then just 22 years old, decided to stay behind because he didn’t want to be separated from his girlfriend. “I was just living my life, and that’s what I wanted to do,” he said in a 1987 interview. But on May 30, 1942, he was arrested and sent to Tanforan. Later, all the detainees were transferred to the Topaz internment camp in Utah.
Mr. Korematsu filed a lawsuit arguing that his constitutional rights had been violated, but the court ruled against him and sentenced him to five years probation. He appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction in 1944, stating that he had not been excluded from the military area “because of hostility to him or his race.”
Although the Court’s decision has been condemned by generations of legal scholars, the formal conviction remained on the books. And for 40 years, Korematsu waited for a chance to clear his name. The opportunity came when Peter Irons approached him with documents the government had withheld from the Court which demonstrated that it was racism, and not any genuine military necessity, that had brought about the internments.
In 1982, a legal team led by Dale Minami brought a landmark coram nobis action to overturn his conviction, together with those of Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui. Two years later, Federal District Court Judge Marilyn Patel ruled in their favor, acknowledging the “great wrong” that had been done to them. In a powerful—and prescient—opinion, she warned that history could recur if the lessons of Korematsu were forgotten:
Korematsu remains on the pages of our legal and political history. As a legal precedent, it is now recognized as having very limited application. As historical precedent, it stands as a constant caution that in times of war or declared military necessity our institutions must be vigilant in protecting constitutional guarantees. It stands as a caution that in times of distress the shield of military necessity and national security must not be used to protect governmental actions from close scrutiny and accountability. It stands as a caution that in times of international hostility and antagonisms our institutions, legislative, executive and judicial, must be prepared to exercise their authority to protect all citizens from the petty fears and prejudices that are so easily aroused.
The ruling helped pave the way for an official apology from the U.S. government to all those who had been interned, and reparations to the thousands of surviving internees. In 1998, Fred Korematsu was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. At the White House ceremony, President Clinton said, “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.”
Though increasingly frail, Mr. Korematsu continued in his last years to speak out against all manner of injustice. When, in the aftermath of 9/11, the government claimed authority to detain both citizens and non-citizens, indefinitely and without charge, as “enemy combatants,” Fred Korematsu became a living example to new generations with no personal memory of the Second World War. In 2004 he filed an amicus curiae brief in the case of Rumsfeld v. Padilla, in which he expressed his concern that “by allowing the Executive Branch to decide unilaterally who to detain, and for how long, our country will repeat the same mistakes of the past.”
Korematsu lived to see the Supreme Court hand the government the rebuke it had failed to deliver in 1944, ruling that American citizens detained in the United States as enemy combatants must be given a fair opportunity to contest the government’s claims before an impartial adjudicator, and that foreign terrorism suspects detained by the United States at Guantánamo Bay have the right to challenge the legality of their detentions in court. Yet despite those rulings and a slew of subsequent court orders, the government refuses to end this unjust and illegal policy.
There could be no better demonstration of how much Fred Korematsu mattered and how badly his example is needed today.
Mark Agrast is the Senior Vice President for Domestic Policy at the Center for American Progress.