“If you look at Fred Korematsu, you see a very ordinary man who just wanted to be left alone, but who defied the United States government because he knew it [the government] was wrong,” says John Tateishi, Executive Director Japanese American Citizens League. Of Civil Wrongs and Rights recounts the events that led a quiet, unassuming man to defy the United States government and wait almost 40 years to prove his innocence.
Born in Oakland, California in 1919, Fred Korematsu is the son of Japanese immigrants. Until December 7, 1941, Korematsu had been living the life of a typical American man: he worked as welder in the San Francisco shipyards, owned a convertible and was very much in love with his girlfriend. However, as he was enjoying a picnic with his girlfriend on the eve of December 7, news of the Pearl Harbor attack started pouring out of his radio. Although he didn’t know it at the time, Korematsu’s life would never be the same again.
On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which ordered the internment of all Japanese Americans. The Korematsu family was taken to Tanforan, a former racetrack south of San Francisco for processing. Korematsu decided to stay behind because he did not want to be separated from his Italian-American girlfriend.
Korematsu refused to relinquish his freedom and tried to remain unnoticed, to no avail. On May 30,1942, Korematsu was arrested and sent to join Tanforan. Later, all the detainees were transferred to the Topaz internment camp in Utah.
Persuaded by Ernest Besig, then Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, Korematsu filed a case on June 12, 1942. The premise of the lawsuit was that Korematsu’s constitutional rights had been violated and he had suffered racial discrimination. However, the court ruled against Korematsu and he was sentenced to 5 years probation. Determined to pursue his cause, Korematsu filed an appeal with Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and, later, to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, in December 1944, the Supreme Court ruled against him, stating that Korematsu “was not excluded from the military area because of hostility to him or his race.”
In Of Civil Wrongs and Rights, Korematsu says he felt that, “I’m an American and just as long as I’m in this country that I will keep on going and if there is a chance of reopening the case, I will do it.” This chance came in the form of Peter Irons, a law professor, researching the internment for a book. Irons discovered long-forgotten documents that proved that the Justice Department had misrepresented the facts to the Supreme Court. He took this evidence to Fred Korematsu, and they both decided to re-open the case.
Peter Irons then enlisted a legal team consisting mainly of Asian-American lawyers. Of Civil Wrongs and Rights is, in part, the story of these idealistic young lawyers and their own fight to end the discrimination that also touched the lives of their family and community members. Their efforts ultimately uncovered documents that clearly showed the government concealed evidence in the 1944 case that racism — not military necessity — motivated the internment order. More than 39 years after the fact, a federal judge reversed Fred Korematsu’s conviction, acknowledging the “great wrong” done to him.
In 1998, Fred Korematsu was awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom award, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Former President Clinton praised Korematsu at the ceremony, stating that “In the long history of our country’s constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stands for millions of souls — Plessy, Brown, Parks. To that distinguished list today we add the name of Fred Korematsu.”