A little-known Japanese-American man may be the next generation's civil rights icon after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill last week making Jan. 30 the Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution.
This is the first time any state has designated a day in honor of an Asian-American, according Ling Woo Liu, director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education at the Asian Law Caucus.
The late Korematsu, born Jan. 30, 1919, in Oakland, was a 23 year-old welder when President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Executive Order 9066 during World War II, forcing 120,000 Japanese-Americans along the West Coast to move to internment camps.
Korematsu felt this was wrong and refused government orders. He got plastic surgery on his eyes to make him look less Asian and changed his name but was arrested in San Leandro, thrown in prison, and eventually sent to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah.
"He took a stand against the government, and he felt like the government was wrong and that he had rights as an American," said Karen Korematsu, Fred's daughter.
Korematsu appealed his case with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which resulted in Korematsu v. United States, heard in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944. The court ruled against him, saying the forced relocation was of military necessity.
For decades, Korematsu lived with a "disloyalty" conviction and suffered
Decades later, a mostly younger generation of Japanese-Americans learned about Korematsu -- many in law schools, where the case is widely read -- and banded together, along with professor and civil rights attorney Peter Irons.
Dale Minami was lead counsel on a team of pro bono lawyers that reopened Korematsu's case after learning the government withheld, and destroyed, crucial evidence in the first case.
"Fred taught us to speak out and stand up," Minami said. "Dissent is not disloyalty. Speaking out against injustice is a duty we have to protect our constitution."
Korematsu's case was heard once again in the courts -- in a federal-district court in San Francisco in 1983 -- and this time, he won; his conviction was dropped.
More than a personal vindication, the 1983 case showed that there was no evidence of treason or espionage among Japanese-Americans during the war, as the government had alleged.
This helped pave the way for redress for survivors of the camps in 1988. Though Fred wasn't the only person who resisted and fought his case in the courts -- others were Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui -- Korematsu's dealt with the most serious civil liberty violation, Minami said.
Like many civil rights leaders, Fred Korematsu remained active and reached across racial and religious lines until he died in 2005 at the age of 86. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 from Bill Clinton. Fred's wife, Kathryn, is 89 years-old and lives in San Leandro. His son, Ken Korematsu, co-produced a film about his father called "Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story."
After 9/11, Korematsu spoke out against injustices against Muslim, Arab and South Asian-Americans, taught about the dangers of what happened in the past, and showed that one person can make a difference. He also filed amicus curiae briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Muslim detainees in Guantanamo Bay.
"What happened to Japanese-Americans and the fight that Fred fought is still existing," said Samina Sundas, founding executive director of the Newark-based American Muslim Voice Foundation, a nonprofit that has an award named after Fred Korematsu, referring to racial profiling and shrinking civil liberties after 9/11.
Supporters of the bill, authored by Assemblymen Warren Furutani (D-South Los Angeles County) and Marty Block (D- San Diego), hope to use Jan. 30 to educate the younger generation about civil liberties.
Ling Woo Liu of the Korematsu Institute said they plan to distribute curriculum kits to school districts throughout the state by Jan. 30.
Some in the younger generation see Korematsu's name on a nearly daily basis. The newly built Fred T. Korematsu freshman campus in San Leandro opened in August. And every week children at the Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy in Oakland, who are mostly Latino and African-American, recite a creed that begins with: "Korematsu, we stand up for what is right."
The Oakland school was renamed after Korematsu in 2006 and is on the former campus of Stonehurst Elementary School, where Korematsu attended. He graduated from Castlemont High School.
"I think he's a good role model because he tells you," said Damond Washington, a fifth-grader at the Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy, "if you know something is not right, to fight for your rights."