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Hidden Heroes: Fred Korematsu

Fred Korematsu by VCU CNS, CC BY-NC 2.0

A Forty Year Struggle for Vindication

Fred Korematsu was born in California in 1919 to parents who came to America from Japan in 1905. His family had a flower nursery. As a young man, he experienced considerable racism. He was drafted to military service in 1940 but was rejected for serious health reasons. He trained to be a welder in a shipyard but was fired because of his Japanese heritage. After Pearl Harbor, he could no longer find employment.

When Japanese Americans were ordered to assemble for transfer to internment camps, Fred went into hiding. He was eventually arrested. When the California Branch of the ACLU learned of his arrest, they asked him to be a test case for the legality of FDR’s executive order sending Japanese-Americans to internment camps. He agreed, but the national head of the ACLU discouraged the continuation of the case. In spite of the national ACLU pressure, the case continued.

Although Fred posted bail, he was rearrested, tried, convicted in a federal court, and sent to an internment camp. While in the camp, his fellow detainees would not recognize him for fear of retribution.

Fred appealed his detainment all the way to the US Supreme Court, but his appeals were rejected. When he was finally released from the camp after the war, he was not allowed to return to his home. He continued to experience racism and was fired from a job when he complained about being paid half of what Whites were being paid.

Fred remained quiet about his treatment for 30 years. When President Ford reversed FDR’s executive order, Fred finally felt some vindication. Subsequently, Presidents Carter and Reagan signed legislation that addressed the shameful acts of detaining Japanese-Americans.

In the 1980s, it was discovered that the US Solicitor General had suppressed FBI reports that Japanese-Americans posed no national security threat. Fred’s conviction was overturned by a US District Court. This came 40 years after his original conviction. However the Supreme Court never overturned its original opinion.

In his later years, Fred continued his activism. Following the 9/11 attacks, he spoke out against the possibility of detaining Americans of Middle Eastern descent. He helped prepare legal briefs in cases regarding Guantanamo detainees before the US Supreme Court.

In 1988, President Bill Clinton awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Fred saying, “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.”

While Fred has been honored at many levels, his story is not known by most Americans. Among the lessons all of us should learn from Fred’s story, are that our democratic values should never be compromised or eroded, especially in times of stress and no matter how justified such compromises or erosions may seem to some at the time. His story can also teach us the importance of individual perseverance in giving real meaning to our democratic values as well as the necessity of revisiting and reevaluating our prior decisions or rulings to insure they align with those values.  

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“Protest, but not with violence, and don’t be afraid to speak up. One person can make a difference, even if it takes 40 years.”– Fred Korematsu