Fred Korematsu, Activist That Defied Executive Orders, Honored On His Birthday

If you opened up the Google homepage this morning, you would have learned that today is the 98th birthday of Fred Korematsu. Korematsu was a civil rights activist who knowingly disobeyed Executive Order 9066. Korematsu was convicted by a federal court and put on five years’ probation. The order Korematsu violated put people of Japanese descent living in a “military area” along the West Coast into internment camps during the Second World War and was justified as an effort to protect against espionage and sabotage. Korematsu took the issue to court, claiming it was an overreach of wartime powers and an impediment on his civil rights.

Korematsu v. United States was heard by the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in a 6-3 decision that internment was a lawful use of the wartime powers extended to the President in the Second War Powers Act in 1942. The reasoning of the majority opinion, written by Hugo L. Black, followed the same path of a case from the previous year, Hirabayashi v. United States. Hirabayashi determined that curfews for Japanese Americans were constitutional on the grounds that while it was reasonable to believe that the majority of the Japanese population was loyal to the US, it was impossible to precisely determine and segregate the disloyal minority. At the same time, Justice Black recognized the “hardship” faced by this racial minority, but deemed it necessary, considering that all citizens suffer hardship in war “in greater or lesser measure.”

Contrary to Black’s ruling, a 1980 investigation into Japanese internment found that the order in fact was at least in part racially motivated. Furthermore, Peter Irons, a political science professor at UC-San Diego, found evidence that the defense actively suppressed intelligence reports, which showed that the Japanese American population posed no threat.

Korematsu continued to face discrimination after the end of the war, particularly by being underpaid in comparison to his white coworkers. In 1983, Korematsu’s conviction was vacated by a US District Court.  He was awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, 7 years before his death.

The CHRO applauds Fred Korematsu’s commitment to the expansion of civil rights through civil disobedience, with the hope that many will follow his example in the future.