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Korematsu was seen as a traitor, a test case, an embarrassment and, finally, a hero.
The New York Times Magazine
December 25, 2005
Fred Korematsu | b. 1919
He Said No to Internment
By MATT BAI
In February 1942, a little more than two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which effectively decreed that West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry - whether American citizens or not - were now "enemy aliens." More than 100,000 Japanese-Americans reported to government staging areas, where they were processed and taken off to 10 internment camps. Fred Korematsu, the son of Japanese immigrants, was at the time a 23-year-old welder at Bay Area shipyards. His parents left their home and reported to a racetrack south of San Francisco, but Korematsu chose not to follow them. He stayed behind in Oakland with his Italian-American girlfriend and then fled, even having plastic surgery on his eyes to avoid recognition. In May 1942, he was arrested and branded a spy in the newspapers.
In search of a test case, Ernest Besig, then the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union for Northern California, went to see Korematsu in jail and asked if he would be willing to challenge the internment policy in court. Korematsu said he would. Besig posted $5,000 bail, but instead of freeing him, federal authorities sent him to the internment camp at Topaz, Utah. He and Besig sued the government, appealing their case all the way to the Supreme Court, which, in a 6-to-3 decision that stands as one of the most ignoble in its history, rejected his argument and upheld the government's right to intern its citizens.
After the war, Korematsu married, returned to the Bay Area and found work as a draftsman. He might have been celebrated in his community, the Rosa Parks of Japanese-American life; in fact, he was shunned. Even during his time in Topaz, other prisoners refused to talk to him. "Allof them turned their backs on me at that time because they thought I was a troublemaker," he later recalled. His ostracism didn't end with the war. The overwhelming majority of Japanese-Americans had reacted to the internment by acquiescing to the government's order, hoping to prove their loyalty as Americans. To them, Korematsu's opposition was treacherous to both his country and his community.
In the years after the war, details of the internment were lost behind a wall of repression. It was common for Japanese-American families not to talk about the experience, or to talk about it only obliquely. Korematsu, too, remained silent, but for different reasons. "He felt responsible for the internment in a sort of backhanded way, because his case had been lost in the Supreme Court," Peter Irons, a legal historian, recalled in a PBS documentary. Korematsu's own daughter has said she didn't learn of his wartime role until she was a junior in high school.
Korematsu might have faded into obscurity had it not been for Irons, who in 1981 asked the Justice Department for the original documents in the Korematsu case. Irons found a memo in which a government lawyer had accused the solicitor general of lying to the Supreme Court about the danger posed by Japanese-Americans. Irons tracked down Korematsu and asked if he would be willing, once again, to go to court.
Perhaps Korematsu had been waiting all those years for a chance to clear his name. Or maybe he saw, in Irons's entreaty, an opportunity to vindicate himself with other Japanese-Americans. Whatever his thinking, not only did Korematsu agree to return to court but he also became an ardent public critic of the internment.
When government lawyers offered Korematsu a pardon, he refused. "As long as my record stands in federal court," Korematsu, then 64, said in an emotional courtroom oration, "any American citizen can be held in prison or concentration camps without a trial or a hearing." The judge agreed, ruling from the bench that Korematsu had been innocent. Just like that, the legality of the internment was struck down forever.
In the last decade of his life, Korematsu became, for some Americans, a symbol of principled resistance. President Clinton awarded Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. Six years later, outraged by the prolonged detention of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Korematsu filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court, warning that the mistakes of the internment were being repeated. Still, Korematsu's place among contemporaries in his own community remained obscured by lingering resentments and a reluctance to revisit the past. When he died from a respiratory illness in March, not a single public building or landmark bore his name. It wasn't until last month that officials in Davis, Calif., dedicated the Fred Korematsu Elementary School. It was an especially fitting tribute for Korematsu, whose legacy rested with a generation of Japanese-Americans who were beginning to remember, at long last, what their parents had labored to forget.
by alfayoko2005 | 2005-12-26 09:42