Civil rights legend Fred Korematsu, who was an AALDEF Justice in Action awardee and longtime friend of AALDEF, passed away at age 86 in California on March 30th. He is survived by his wife Kathryn, daughter Karen, son Ken, and son-in-law Donald Haigh. The AALDEF staff and board extend their deepest condolences to each and all of them.
Fred Korematsu was born in Oakland, California on in 1919. Despite being an American citizen by birth, he was among 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast ordered to report to so-called “relocation centers” in 1942. Showing a bravery far beyond his 23 years, Fred defied the military orders until he was arrested and jailed. With the assistance of attorney Ernest Bessig and others, he appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that it was unconstitutional for the government to incarcerate an American citizen like himself without charges, evidence or trial. In its 1944 landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled against him, declaring that the Japanese American internment was a “military necessity,” and was not caused by racism. In a case that is read in every law school, Korematsu versus United States contains three ringing dissents that describe why the case was wrongly decided. In the court of history, most legal scholars have called the case a “civil liberties disaster.”
Almost forty years after his loss in the Supreme Court, Fred received a call from attorney Peter Irons, who, with the help of Jack and Aiko Yoshinaga Herzig, had discovered government documents showing that the government’s own lawyers and experts in 1942 did not think that the Japanese American mass incarceration was justified. This contrary view was intentionally hidden from the Supreme Court, thus setting up a claim of governmental misconduct. Irons and a team of young attorneys led by Dale Minami of San Francisco and supported by AALDEF and civil rights attorneys around the country helped Fred, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Min Yasui to reopen their wartime convictions in 1983 in so-called “coram nobis” cases. In Fred’s case, his criminal conviction from the 1940s for defying the governmental orders was “vacated” (erased). While this did not compensate for a lifetime of lower wages because he could not get some jobs due to his felony conviction, it did provide Fred (and, by extension, the broader Japanese American community) with a measure of vindication.
Fred and his family came to New York in 1984 to publicize the case and the ongoing struggle for legislated redress at a screening of the film “Unfinished Business” that was organized by AALDEF. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nations highest civilian award, in 1989.
In 2002, Fred returned to New York to receive AALDEF’s “Justice in Action” award. AALDEF Executive Director Margaret Fung noted in a recent interview that Fred seemed to be at the height of his powers as a speaker and visionary when he spoke at that year’s Lunar New Year Dinner. “In accepting AALDEF’s Justice in Action award,” she said, “Fred criticized the racial profiling against South Asian, Muslim and Arab Americans after the September 11 attacks, comparing it to the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The 800 guests in the ballroom were silent as they listened to Fred’s speech, and we were all very moved when he said, ‘It was unconstitutional then, and its still unconstitutional now. I’ll say to Arab Americans: we are behind you; we’ll help you get through this.‘”
Thank you, Fred, for inspiring so many of us with your courage, your strength, and your vision. You were a true American hero.