Daughter of civil rights activist Fred Korematsu discusses his legacy in WLS forum

With the current political climate and attitudes toward immigrants, the 1944 Supreme Court ruling declaring the incarceration of Japanese Americans to be constitutional “is more relevant today than it was then.” That’s the message Karen Korematsu, daughter of the late civil rights activist Fred Korematsu, brought to the Whittier Law School campus in a forum held March 22.

“The general public really has not known what an executive order represents or the power behind it,” Ms. Korematsu said, describing the historical and modern significance of the incarceration order. “People take our rights for granted and they take democracy for granted.”

Sponsored by Whittier’s Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, the forum explored the history and impact of the landmark Korematsu v. United States ruling. Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American born in Oakland, Calif., objected to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order authorizing the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Korematsu defied the order and refused to be incarcerated, making him a fugitive.

After being arrested in 1942, Korematsu began a series of legal challenges against the order, eventually taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court. The high court upheld the legality of the incarceration order in its Korematsu v. United States ruling, which has never been overturned. Korematsu’s conviction for evading incarceration was eventually vacated in 1983.

Fred’s daughter, Karen, now carries on his legacy as the founder and executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute. That role includes teaching opportunities like the forum at Whittier Law School, where she brought awareness to students about the significance of her father’s Supreme Court case and its parallels to today’s political and social climate.

“You hope they understand that even though my father’s conviction was vacated in 1983 when the evidence was found in Washington, D.C. that proved there was no military necessity for Japanese Americans to be incarcerated, it’s still on the Supreme Court record,” she said.

That means the ruling could be cited as precedent in support of the Trump administration’s recent travel ban against immigrants from certain countries. In 2001, after the September 11 attacks, Korematsu v. United States was also cited as a possible precedent to incarcerate anyone who was a Muslim or was of Arab ethnicity. Using the ruling as precedent in that way was something Fred Korematsu was vehemently opposed to.

“He was one of the first people to speak up and say, ‘No, government, you can’t do that. You tried that before,’” Ms. Korematsu said.

Fred Korematsu passed away in 2005, but the work of his namesake institute—upholding civil liberties and the Constitution—goes on. That purpose is something Karen Korematsu hopes to instill in the students she speaks to at Whittier and elsewhere.

“There is social justice in all aspects of the law and in all aspects of life, and that’s what I want law students in particular to remember,” she said, adding that lawyers bear the responsibility of preserving civil rights regardless of their practice area.

As an example, Ms. Korematsu noted the confusion that followed the first iteration of President Trump’s travel ban and the many attorneys who showed up at airports, irrespective of their practice areas, to help people affected by the ban. It was something her father, Fred, would have been pleased to see, she said.

“They can make a difference. Fred Korematsu was one person who made a difference in the face of adversity, because even his own Japanese American community vilified him and ostracized him,” she said. “If one person can do that, then that’s the charge and the challenge that I give to law students today.”

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