[May 3rd marks the 80th anniversary of the infamous broadside through which the Roosevelt administration ordered Japanese Americans to surrender themselves to the internment policy (or incarceration—I’m convinced of the need for that term change, but most folks still know it as internment so I’m using that in my series title). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy images of that horrific history, leading up to a special weekend post on scholars helping us remember it.]
Sharing a few paragraphs from my book We the People on Fred Korematsu’s multi-layered legacies:
“Yet while Korematsu did not win his legal battle nor escape from internment, his resistance was an inspiring and influential one on multiple significant levels. Most immediately, it seems to have had a direct impact on another December 1944 Supreme Court decision that went the other way and helped limit and eventually end internment. Collins likewise represented that plaintiff, Mitsuye Endo, a twenty-two-year old clerical worker who had filed a writ of habeas corpus to oppose her indefinite internment at the Tule Lake (California) camp. In Justice Hugo Black’s majority opinion in Korematsu he overtly cites Ex parte Mitsuye Endo, arguing that “the Endo case graphically illustrates the difference between the validity of an order to exclude and the validity of a detention order after exclusion has been effected.” Not at all coincidentally, the Court released its unanimous decision in support of Endo’s writ on the same day (December 18, 1944) it did Korematsu. Writing for the Court in Endo, Justice William Douglas notes that “We are of the view that Mitsuye Endo should be given her liberty,” adding, “whatever power the War Relocation Authority may have to detail other classes of citizens, it has no authority to subject citizens who are concededly loyal to its leave procedure.” The Court’s duality in response to Korematsu and Endo is frustrating, but nonetheless the Endo decision, represented a significant step in opposing internment, and Korematsu’s case clearly factored into it.
For a few decades after his release from the Topaz camp, Korematsu disappeared into the private life he had long desired; he continued to face anti-Japanese prejudice, but also moved to Detroit, married Kathryn Pearson in October 1946, moved back to Oakland with her when his mother became ill in 1949, and had two children over the next few years. But when he reentered public and legal conversations in the early 1980s, it comprised another layer to his case’s influential legacy and effects. Peter Irons, a lawyer and professor at the University of California, San Diego, was researching a book on internment and discovered evidence that the U.S. solicitor general who argued Korematsu before the Supreme Court had withheld FBI and military reports, which concluded that Japanese Americans posed no security risk. Irons brought a writ of error before San Francisco federal court judge Marilyn Hall Patel, and persuaded Korematsu to testify in the proceeding that could vacate his original conviction. Korematsu did so eloquently, arguing that “I would like to see the government admit that they were wrong and do something about it so this will never happen again to any American citizen of any race, creed, or color,” and adding, “If anyone should do any pardoning, I should be the one pardoning the government for what they did to the Japanese- American people.” On April 19, 1984, Patel formally vacated Korematsu’s conviction, an important legal step that helped pave the way for future victories including (especially) the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided financial reparations for each surviving detainee.
Those individual and collective results would have been more than enough to cement Korematsu’s legacy and impact, but in the last years of his life he took his public activism one significant step further still. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Korematsu became an outspoken advocate for civil liberties and critic of many of the War on Terror’s infringements of such rights. In particular, he filed two amicus curiae briefs to accompany Supreme Court cases involving detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison: an October 2003 brief for the cases of Shafiq Rasul and Khaled Al Odah, in which Korematsu cites numerous historical examples (including but not limited to Japanese internment) to argue that the restriction of civil liberties is never justified; and an April 2004 brief for Jose Padilla’s case, in which Korematsu parallels his own internment situation to that of Padilla and argues, “full vindication for the Japanese-Americans will arrive only when we learn that, even in times of crisis, we must guard against prejudice and keep uppermost our commitment to law and justice.” Through these impressive twenty-first-century briefs and activist efforts, the second drafted less than a year before his March 2005 death, Korematsu ensured that his own history, story, and legal battle would continue to echo into a new era of exclusionary restrictions and inclusive alternatives.”
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Stories or histories you’d highlight?