Essay Challenge: Fred Korematsu’s Fight for Justice

By: Dylon Hill  |  

May 24, 2023

Fred Korematsu’s story shows us how one person can make a difference when addressing racism and injustice. His story teaches us that fighting for freedom will have its costs even if it causes us to change ourselves on the outside to meets the means to an end. That what matters is speaking up and the belief to fight for the truth and against inequality. I feel I fight for justice by speaking up when I see things that are not right like Mr. Korematsu. I may not have the power to make changes legally but as a grandchild of a Japanese Internee, I feel my power is in my voice. I believe my maternal grandmother (Obachan) has given me the foundation to help me figure out how to fight for injustice through my education and learning more about my background and culture.

Fred Korematsu defied the Executive Order 9066 signed by Franklin Roosevelt on February 19, 1942. This order placed Japanese Americans in concentration camps as they were seen to be as a threat during World War 2. Mr. Korematsu underwent minor plastic surgery to alter the look of his eyes to look less Japanese and continued to live his life as an American citizen. He changed his name to Clyde Sarah and reported himself to be part Spanish and of Hawaiian descent. Some viewed these actions as cowardly, but Mr. Korematsu felt that as an American his freedom is very valuable and shouldn’t be taken from him because of racism. However, the surgery and name change did not protect him against government officials arresting him. While in jail, Ernest Besig, the San Francisco American Civil Liberties Union director met and convinced Mr. Korematsu to challenge the constitutionality of his imprisonment based on his race and ethnicity. He lost the challenge in court and he was sentenced to 5 years of probation. He was taken to the Tanforan holding facility, which kept Japanese Americans as prisoners before they were sent to a more permanent concentration camp. Mr. Korematsu was then moved to the Central Utah War Relocation Center with his family. Mr. Korematsu continued to fight for his sentence to be overturned, as the law he broke was a law that imprisoned him based on his race. The court case made it to the Supreme Court but Mr. Korematsu lost again. This was due to the racist climate and World War 2.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter initiated a special commission to look into Mr. Korematsu’s case to see if the government had violated his civil rights. As the investigation progressed, “J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, the FCC, the Office of Naval Intelligence and other authoritative intelligence agencies categorically denied that Japanese Americans had committed any wrongdoing.” Mr. Korematsu sentence was over turned to not guilty in the US Northern California Courts, but the Supreme Court decision that he was guilty of violating E.O. 9066 stayed. Despite this fact, Mr. Korematsu continued his work as an activist to bring light to racism and racial profiling cases. Mr. Korematsu work includes filing two amicus briefs in two cases against the US government on behalf of Muslims held at Guantanamo Bay. His briefs were a warning to the US government that civil liberties have never been restricted and there is no justification for these restrictions.

Mr. Korematsu served as a member on the National Redress and Reparations Committee and was able to lobby and get the US government to send an official apology and redress money to victims of E.O. 9066. His activism and determination helped many people who were discriminated due to their race, ethnicity or religious affiliation during the War.

Fred Korematsu and my Obachan (grandmother)

Mr. Korematsu’s actions had an impact on my Obachan. My Obachan, Kaoru Fujii Sugiyama, was born March 22, 1931. She was 11 years old when the government removed her and her family from their Northern California home and forced them to live at the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona. Her family stayed at the Gila River Internment Camp for 3 years, in which they were separated from her father and older brother, who were taken to New Mexico. My mother recalled that she would have to read the letters coming in from her father to a man at the camp. She realized later these officials already knew what the letters said, they wanted to see if she would lie and be disloyal.

After the War ended, she and her family moved back to California. Her family had to rebuild their life and farm and try to feel safe in their home. She faced racism and hatred from not only Caucasian peers but also other racial groups. She had told my mother that when she was at UC Berkeley, she tried to rent an apartment near the school but she was told it was rented. A few days later, my Obachan saw the same for rent sign up on the same apartment again. My Obachan became an activist in her own way by speaking of her time at the Gila River internment camp, speaking out against the treatment of the Japanese Americans during that time and doing interviews for articles and the media. My great grandmother and Obachan received the redress and reparations from the government. Many people thought the money and apology should be enough for Japanese Internees to feel vindicated. The bottom line for my family was that it didn’t give my great grandmother or Obachan the loss of their freedom and life back, the loss of time with their family being together, and the loss of land they owned. They lost the feeling of being safe in a country they called home. My Obachan wanted to educate people about what had happened to her when she put in an internment camp.

If you go to the Gila River Indian Reservation today, you will see Gila River Interment Camp has changed. What you will find is the government demolished the camp to hide all evidence that the camp existed. From my Obachan’s experience, I understand that my words have power and I can speak up if I see injustice happen. Mr. Korematsu’s has also modeled that speaking up and never forgetting the past injustices are important to acknowledge and remember. We can only hope this keeps the past from repeating itself again.

In conclusion, I am learning of ways to fight injustice in using my voice like Mr. Koramatsu. Educating myself, being a member of the JACL and the Arizona Buddhist Temple have encouraged me to learn of the challenges Japanese Americans face and how I still have so much to learn about fighting injustice in other ways.

Related link: Click here to watch Dylon Hill share his lessons learned in writing his essay.

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