“Today, we remember the dangers of casting stereotypes on entire communities, and we recommit to our country’s ideals of protecting civil rights and promoting an environment where people can strive to achieve the American dream based on the content of one’s character, not the color of one’s skin.”
So wrote Akil Vohra in 2011, as senior adviser at the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, about the man famous for the 1944 Supreme Court case Korematsu v. United States, in which he fought against Japanese internment during World War II. Those words (now in the archives of the WhiteHouse.gov pages from then-President Barack Obama’s tenure) were published in 2011 just after Jan. 30, which was proclaimed Fred T. Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution to celebrate “the legacy of a courageous man who has left a message not just for one community, but for the entire country.”
He was, in other words, a human rights champion who fought against demeaning and demonizing people by race and nationality.
Korematsu, who died in 2005 in Marin County, would have turned 98 today. And seven years before Korematsu’s passing, when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, President Bill Clinton said that the activist’s name stood along those of such brave and justice-seeking “ordinary citizens” as Homer Plessy, Oliver Brown and Rosa Parks.
Korematsu’s courage during World War II centered on taking a stand against the government’s internment of many of its own citizens in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, approved the incarceration of about 120,000 people — most of Japanese descent, and two-thirds of them U.S. citizens — who were taken from their homes. Korematsu — a 23-year-old foreman in his native Oakland who was denied Coast Guard enlistment because of his ethnicity — refused to go, went into hiding and was eventually arrested. He lost his landmark case before the Supreme Court and was sent to a Utah relocation center.
Four decades later, his conviction was finally overturned.
In 2010, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — long before replacing President Trump as “Celebrity Apprentice” host — signed the Fred Korematsu Day bill, creating the first day in American history to be named for an Asian American.
Several months later, WhiteHouse.gov said:
“In June 1983, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians concluded that the decision to remove those people of Japanese ancestry to U.S. prison camps occurred because of ‘race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.’ ”
At every level of American life, we forever relearn these hard lessons.
Today’s Google Doodle — of Korematsu wearing his Medal of Freedom and surrounded by symbolic cherry blossoms — is by Sophie Diao, the daughter of Asian immigrants.