Since 2010, six states—California, Hawai’i, Utah, Illinois, Georgia, and Virginia—have designated January 30th as Fred Korematsu Day, the first day in U.S. history named after an Asian American. The recognition honors the birthday of the civil rights leader best known for resisting Japanese American incarceration during World War II. Several other states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania, have or are considering legislative recognition. This year’s Fred Korematsu Day celebration in San Francisco, which would have been Fred’s ninety-seventh birthday, features a panel that includes Lorraine K. Bannai, author of Enduring Conviction: Fred Korematsu and His Quest for Justice, which the UW Press released in November. As a young attorney in the 1980s, Bannai was part of the volunteer legal team that resurrected Korematsu’s case and got his unjust conviction overturned.
The following excerpt from Bannai’s book reflects on Fred Korematsu’s growing legacy.
Since Fred’s passing, the relevance of his life and case has only grown. His story has remained important as the nation has continued to try to heal the wounds of the wartime incarceration. On May 20, 2011, for example, Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal publicly acknowledged the improper actions of his World War II predecessor, Charles Fahy, when arguing Fred’s case before the Supreme Court. In his blog post “Confession of Error: The Solicitor General’s Mistakes during the Japanese-American Internment Cases,” Katyal explained that while solicitor generals have played important roles throughout history in advancing civil rights, “it is also important to remember the mistakes.”
Citing the evidence presented in Fred Korematsu’s and Gordon Hirabayashi’s coram nobis cases, Katyal related that Fahy was aware of “key intelligence reports that undermined the rationale behind the internment” but failed to disclose those reports to the Court. “And to make matters worse,” Katyal continued, “[Fahy] relied on gross generalizations about Japanese Americans, such as they were disloyal and motivated by ‘racial solidarity.’” He concluded, “Today, our Office takes this history as an important reminder that the ‘special credence’ the Solicitor General enjoys before the Supreme Court requires great responsibility and a duty of absolute candor in our representations to the Court. Only then can we fulfill our responsibility to defend the United States and its Constitution, and to protect the rights of all Americans.” Peter Irons commented that he thought the statement was “good and very long overdue.” “This was a deliberate, knowing lie by Fahy to the Supreme Court. For the nation’s highest counsel to make that statement now is quite noteworthy and admirable.”
Fred’s words have further echoed hauntingly as the country has continued to grapple with issues of race, profiling, and the protection of civil liberties during times of crisis. For example, provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) again raise the specter of indefinite military detention without charges or trial, and Fred’s name and case have been invoked to warn of the danger of compromising due process guarantees. Section 1021 of the NDAA of 2012, still in effect, affirms the authority of the military to indefinitely detain individuals who, in the judgment of military authorities, are considered to have “substantially supported” terrorist organizations. Many criticize that this language is so vague it would allow the indefinite detention of innocent individuals, including American citizens, if the military believed them to be “supporting” terrorism, without charges or trial or other judicial review.