BFKN is proud to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, and we are pleased to recognize the contributions and influence of AAPI individuals to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States. Throughout the month of May, we will be spotlighting significant legal cases and developments related to the AAPI community and how those developments have shaped American history. This week we highlight the history of Japanese American internment camps, and, in particular, the 1944 Supreme Court Case Korematsu v. United States, the landmark decision upholding the constitutionality of internment during World War II.

Korematsu v. U.S. (1944)

Fred Korematsu was born in 1919 in Oakland, California. Raised by Japanese immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in 1905, Korematsu was active in his community and school and worked in his family’s flower business. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Korematsu assisted in the American war effort as a welder, and was even promoted to foreman, but was eventually forced out of the job because of his Japanese descent.

On December 7, 1941, among rising public animosity towards Japan and fear the of Japanese American population, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. Executive Order 9066 resulted in the eviction of thousands of Japanese American children, women, and men from restricted areas in the West Coast, forcing most into internment camps under the auspice of national security. Of the roughly 110,000 individuals detained in internment camps, approximately 80,000 were U.S. citizens who were denied numerous constitutionally-protected rights afforded to citizens, including the rights to be informed of charges, legal counsel, a speedy and public trial, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, and equal protection under the laws.

Living during this period of wartime tension, Korematsu would often lie about his ethnicity and background, saying he was Mexican American in order to avoid discrimination and threats of violence. Korematsu was unable to escape Executive Order 9066, however, and was eventually arrested in 1942, when he refused to leave his home in San Leandro, California.

Later that year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Korematsu’s conviction, resulting in his detainment in an internment camp. The majority opinion held that Congress and the executive branch had the right to issue military orders that evicted and placed individuals in internment camps based solely on their Japanese ancestry, as the harm of potential of espionage from within the Japanese American community outweighed the protection of their constitutional rights. Years later, a report commissioned by President Roosevelt on the loyalty and sympathies of the Japanese American community shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor would surface, which concluded that there was “a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group.”

Korematsu remained an activist throughout his life. In 1998, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Bill Clinton. In 2010, the State of California passed the Fred Korematsu Day bill, making January 30 the first day in the U.S. named to honor an Asian American. Korematsu’s growing legacy continues to inspire people of all backgrounds and demonstrates the importance of speaking up to fight injustice.

To learn more about Fred Korematsu and other U.S. Supreme Court cases involving the fight for AAPI civil rights, click here.

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