Fred T. Korematsu was an American civil rights activist and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Every year on this day, the Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, we honor his brave struggle against bigotry and segregation in America.
Korematsu was born in Oakland, California in 1919. He lived there until 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the imprisonment of people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast. Fred defied the order and went into hiding. He was discovered and arrested a few weeks thereafter and held in a jail in San Francisco.
Fred was approached by Ernest Besig, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, while imprisoned. Besig asked Korematsu if he would be willing to challenge his arrest in the Supreme Court. Korematsu said yes. Although Fred was released after Besig paid his $5,000 bail, he was immediately detained by military police and held at Presidio military fort for nearly three months. He was subsequently tried and convicted in federal court on September 8, 1942, and given five years’ probation.
Following a failed appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fred appealed again and was granted a review by the U.S. Supreme Court on March 27, 1944, in a landmark case known as Korematsu v. United States. The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision written by Justice Hugo Black, upheld Korematsu’s conviction, finding that the exclusion order was constitutional.
After his release, Fred was forced to move East for work, although his job prospects were limited by his conviction. He married Kathryn Pearson in Detroit in 1946 and returned to Oakland in 1949. He had a daughter, Karen, in 1950 and a son, Ken, in 1954. Korematsu’s conviction was vacated in 1983 after information surfaced that revealed Charles Fahy, the Solicitor General of the United States who argued Korematsu v. United States, had intentionally stifled reports which concluded that Japanese-American citizens posed no security threat.
Korematsu continued to advocate for civil rights after the decision. In 1998, he received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. After 9/11, Korematsu spoke out against the wrongful treatment of Muslims and warned America against repeating the mistakes of the past. He filed two amicus curiae briefs with the Supreme Court in October 2003 and April 2004 on behalf of prisoners who were held at Guantanamo Bay for what Korematsu considered to be too long of a period.
Fred T. Korematsu passed away on March 30, 2005, after a battle with respiratory illness. In 2009, the Fred T. Korematsu Institute was founded to preserve and honor Korematsu’s legacy of activism and social justice. The following year, in 2010, the state of California passed the Fred Korematsu Day bill, designating January 30th of each year as the Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution. It was the first such day for an Asian American in the United States. Fred Korematsu Day is also commemorated each year by Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Utah.
Fred Korematsu’s struggle for justice continues to inspire people around the world today and serves as a reminder of the dangers of not speaking out against oppression. As Mr. Korematsu said, “One person can make a difference, even if it takes forty years.”