[RIP] Civil Rights Activist Fred Korematsu Dies At 86
- Civil Rights Activist Fred Korematsu Dies At 86
POSTED: 10:20 pm PST March 30, 2005
SAN FRANCISCO -- Civil rights activist Fred Korematsu, who
unsuccessfully fought the order to be sent to a Japanese American
internment camp during World War II, died Wednesday. He was 86.
Korematsu died of respiratory illness at his daughter's home in
Larkspur, said his attorney Dale Minami.
"He had a very strong will," Minami said. "He was like our Rosa
Parks. He took an unpopular stand at a critical point in out
Korematsu became a symbol of civil rights for challenging the World
War II internment orders that sent 120,000 Japanese Americans to
government camps. His conviction for opposing the internment was
finally overturned in U.S. District Court in 1983.
"He had the burden of losing the case that allowed his people to go
to camps," Minami said. "It was a burden he carried for 40 years. The
day the decision came down that the judge was overturning his
conviction, I went to Fred and said, 'Can you believe this?' It took
a long time for that to sink in."
Korematsu helped win a national apology and reparations for
internment camp survivors and their families in 1988.
He was honored by President Clinton in 1998 with the nation's highest
civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
"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," Clinton said at the time. "To that
distinguished list today we add the name of Fred Korematsu."
Korematsu, the son of Japanese immigrants, was born in Oakland. He
was living there in 1942, a 23-year-old welder, when military
officials ordered all Japanese Americans on the West Coast --
including U.S. citizens like Korematsu -- to report for
transportation to remote camps.
Nearly all complied, including Korematsu's family and friends, who
urged him to go along. He refused.
"All of them turned their backs on me at that time because they
thought I was a troublemaker," he recalled. "I thought what the
military was doing was unconstitutional. I was really upset because I
was branded as an enemy alien when I'm an American."
He was arrested, convicted of violating the order and sent to an
internment camp in Utah. The Supreme Court upheld Korematsu's
conviction in December 1944, agreeing with the government that it was
justified by the need to combat sabotage and espionage.
"There was evidence of disloyalty on the part of some (Japanese
Americans), the military authorities considered that the need for
action was great, and the time was short," wrote Justice Hugo Black
in the 6-3 ruling.
Current legal scholars almost universally regard the ruling as one of
the worst in the court's history. But it was not repudiated until the
early 1980s, when Asian-American lawyers and civil rights advocates
unearthed new evidence that undermined the internment order.
For almost 40 years, Korematsu did not talk about his experiences and
even his daughter, Karen, had to learn about it in a college textbook.
"He had a quiet courage," Minami said. "That's the best way to
describe him. He did things because he thought the were right. He
just thought this was wrong."
In recent years, Korematsu remained active in civil rights issues,
speaking out against parts of the Patriot Act that he felt violated
the rights of Arab Americans.
"He felt like what was happening to Arab Americans was very similar
to what happened to Japanese Americans," Minami said. "Part of his
legacy is that he challenged the government in a time of war. ... He
continued speaking out in support of civil rights and the
Constitution for years and years."
Korematsu is survived by his wife, Katherine, his daughter, Karen,
and son, Ken.