SAN FRANCISCO - Fred Korematsu, who became a symbol of civil rights for challenging the World War II internment orders that sent 120,000 Japanese Americans to government camps, has died. He was 86.
Korematsu died Wednesday of respiratory illness at his daughter’s home in Larkspur, said his attorney Dale Minami.
“He had a very strong will,” Minami said. “He was like our Rosa Parks. He took an unpopular stand at a critical point in our history.”
After finally getting his conviction overturned in the early 1980s for opposing internment orders during the war, Korematsu helped win a national apology and reparations for internment camp survivors and their families in 1988.
He was honored by President Clinton in 1998 with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“In the long history of our country’s constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls — Plessy, Brown, Parks,” Clinton said at the time. “To that distinguished list today we add the name of Fred Korematsu.”
Defiant in the face relocation
Korematsu, the son of Japanese immigrants, was a 23-year-old welder living in Oakland in 1942 when military officials ordered all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast — including U.S. citizens like Korematsu — to report to remote internment camps.
Nearly all complied, including Korematsu’s family and friends, who urged him to go along. But he refused.
“All of them turned their backs on me at that time because they thought I was a troublemaker,” he recalled. “I thought what the military was doing was unconstitutional. I was really upset because I was branded as an enemy alien when I’m an American.”
He was arrested, convicted of violating the order and sent to an internment camp in Utah. The Supreme Court upheld Korematsu’s conviction in December 1944, agreeing with the government that it was justified by the need to combat sabotage and espionage.
Current legal scholars almost universally regard the ruling as one of the worst in the court’s history. But it was not repudiated until the early 1980s, when Asian-American lawyers and civil rights advocates unearthed new evidence that undermined the internment order. Korematsu’s conviction was overturned in 1983.
Silent about experiences
For almost 40 years, Korematsu did not talk about his experiences and even his daughter had to learn about it in a college textbook.
“He had a quiet courage,” Minami said. “That’s the best way to describe him. He did things because he thought the were right. He just thought this was wrong.”
Korematsu remained active in civil rights issues in recent years, speaking out against parts of the Patriot Act that he felt violated the rights of Arab-Americans.
“He felt like what was happening to Arab-Americans was very similar to what happened to Japanese-Americans,” Minami said. “Part of his legacy is that he challenged the government in a time of war. ... He continued speaking out in support of civil rights and the Constitution for years and years.”
Korematsu is survived by his wife, Katherine, his daughter, Karen, and son, Ken. The Associated Press