My father’s work to advance civil rights is far from over. Together, we must work to defend democracy.
By Karen Korematsu
Before my father, Fred Korematsu, passed away, he charged me with continuing his mission to educate the public and remind people of the dangers of repeating history. During World War II, he famously resisted the U.S. government’s unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans, taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In a landmark decision, the Court ruled against him, arguing that “military necessity” justified his incarceration.
Then, in 1983, a pro bono legal team reopened my father’s case by filing a petition for a writ of error coram nobis, which is a legal procedure used to correct a court’s “fundamental error” or “manifest injustice” in a trial, after the defendant has been convicted and served his sentence. They challenged his decision based on evidence of governmental misconduct and proof that there was no military necessity for Japanese Americans to be incarcerated during WWII. On November 10, 1983, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of the District Court for the Northern District of California formally vacated my father’s federal criminal conviction. It was a pivotal moment in U.S. history.
My father remained an activist and champion for civil rights until his passing in 2005 at the age of 86. In 2009, I founded the Fred T. Korematsu Institute to carry on his legacy. Our mission is educating to advance racial equity, social justice, and human rights for all. Our activities include producing and distributing free multimedia educational materials to teachers, training educators, hosting public events, and building coalition partnerships with social-justice education organizations nationwide.
Soon after I founded the Institute, California State Assemblymen Warren Furutani and Marty Block recognized my father as an American civil rights hero and asked me to join them in working to establish a day honoring my father’s fight for justice and defense of civil liberties and the Constitution. Our work came to fruition in 2010, when California Governor Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law. It established my father’s birthday, January 30, in perpetuity as the Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution. It is the first day in U.S. history named after an Asian American.
Now, I am not only the executive director of the Korematsu Institute, but also a civil rights advocate, community leader, and living voice of Fred Korematsu. I have elevated my father’s legacy to demonstrate how his story is just as relevant today as it was when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in 1944. Since my father’s passing, I have responded to issues of racial profiling, immigration, civil rights violations, and many other challenges of our times. Like my father once did, I find myself crisscrossing this country to speak about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and the importance of fighting for our civil liberties and social justice.
Our work is far from over. Today, our democracy is at risk. Our Constitution is under attack. Nothing is more important than upholding our civil liberties and fighting for social justice. If all of us don’t participate in our democracy, we risk losing our identity and our voice. This is why we at the Korematsu Institute recently broadened our vision to include public civic engagement education, promoting the urgency of voting and participating in the Census. We need diverse representation in government and fully counted communities, so that people receive the federal funds and services they need.
Today, my father’s words remain as important as ever: “Stand up for what is right, and when you see something wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up.”
As we commemorate the life and legacy of Fred T. Korematsu, please help Korematsu’s legacy and passion for social justice continue at bit.ly/korematsu75. Stand up for what is right. Together, we can stop injustices like Japanese American incarceration and attacks on vulnerable communities from happening again.
Karen Korematsu is the Founder and Executive Director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute and serves on the board of directors of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.