Today is the first Fred T. Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution Day in the State of California. The Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, signed a bill into law this past September to institute this commemoration, believed to be the first statewide holiday in our country honoring an Asian American. Korematsu died in 2005; yesterday would have been his 92nd birthday.
I’m glad for this opportunity for others to know of this quiet man and what he did, as his name–and what it represents–is not known much outside of constitutional law circles and the Japanese-American community. But we all should know this story, because we all benefit from his principles.
Briefly, in 1942 Fred Korematsu was arrested and found guilty of violating the government order which sent more than 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps. His case ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which along with three other cases (Yasui, Hirabayashi, and Endo), upheld the constitutionality of the internment. For nearly 40 years, these cases continued to be the Supreme Court rulings which allowed the deprivation of due process of American citizens born in the U.S. solely on the basis of race. (I’ve written law review articles on this, so I’m restraining myself here.)
Using research which showed that the U.S. government suppressed the fact that its own intelligence had established that the interned Japanese Americans were not a security risk, even as the matter was litigated before the Supreme Court, teams of Sansei (third-generation) volunteer lawyers reopened the cases in the 1980s using an arcane proceeding known as “coram nobis.” In 1983, a federal district court judge overturned Korematsu’s conviction, but the 1944 Supreme Court decision, though discredited, still stands.
I followed these so-called coram nobis cases closely because of Min Yasui of the Yasui case. I’m proud to say that Min became a mentor of mine, and his memory remains an inspiration to me. While the coram nobis case case for Min and the others were going on, I was deep in the trenches of the redress movement, what became the legislative miracle that resulted in President Reagan signing into law on August 10, 1988 the bill which gave the internees an apology and token reparations. This photo from the redress bill signing hangs in my hallway, a treasured souvenir of that day when I got to take my dad with me to the White House and be a part of history.
At the end of my days, I already know I will be the proudest of having been Akemi’s mother, having authored the Pasadena stake history, and for having contributed in some small ways to redress and, I sincerely believe, to the fabric of our Constitution.
So how do I commemorate Korematsu Day? With some okayu, the Japanese equivalent of porridge, perfect “comfort food” for someone trying to kick a cold on a cool winter night. After completing the third chemo round and making it through an intense month at work, quiet remembrance is in order.
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”