The Legacy Of Civil Rights Leader Fred Korematsu

Guest

Karen Korematsu, daughter of civil rights leader Fred Korematsu

Several American cities celebrated Fred Korematsu Day Monday. Korematsu fought the executive order that incarcerated thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. His case went to the Supreme Court, and in 1988, thousands of surviving internees and heirs began receiving reparations.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Just a couple of months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered that anyone of Japanese descent be removed from the West Coast. In one of the most shameful episodes in American history, more than 110,000 people were forced into concentration camps. A few, though, refused, including a then young man named Fred Korematsu.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

FRED KOREMATSU: I didn't think that the government would go as far as to include American citizens to be interned without a hearing. And then later on, they changed my draft card to 4-C, which is enemy alien. In those days, if you're an Asian, people automatically think you don't belong in this country. You're not an American, and I thought that was wrong.

CONAN: Fred Korematsu became the subject of a test case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, but it ruled against him in 1944. Forty years later, a federal court overturned his conviction. In 1988, Congress voted to pay reparations for the surviving Japanese from the camps, and the government apologized. We want to hear from Japanese-Americans today. How did you hear about your family story during the war? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Fred Korematsu died in 2005. His daughter Karen Korematsu tells his story. She joins us today from member station KQED in San Francisco. Nice to have you with us today.

KAREN KOREMATSU-HAIGH: Thank you.

CONAN: And yesterday was the second Fred Korematsu Day in California, and I'm sure that was quite emotional.

KOREMATSU-HAIGH: Yes, it was. It's wonderful to see how much my father's legacy has grown. And we've had several events around California and even as far as Florida in honor of my father's special day of recognition, Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution.

CONAN: Your father now recognized as a hero, a champion of civil rights, but I understand you didn't find out. He never talked about it when you were a kid.

KOREMATSU-HAIGH: That's correct. I didn't find out about my father's Supreme Court case until I was a junior in high school. And it was in a social studies class when my friend Maya(ph) got up in front of all of us to give a book report, an oral book report, about the Japanese-American internment. Her book was called "Concentration Camps USA." And when she was talking about the Japanese-American internment, it was a subject I had not heard of before. No one spoke about it in my family. And then she went on to say that someone had resisted the exclusion order and resulted in a famous Supreme Court case, Korematsu v. the United States. Well, I sat there and said that's my name. And the only thing I knew is that Korematsu is a very unusual Japanese name.

CONAN: And so you went home and asked your mom.

KOREMATSU-HAIGH: I did and confronted her and said, you know, is this about my father because my friend Maya did not refer to my father's first name. So certainly, I thought it was some other black sheep of the family, not my father.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KOREMATSU-HAIGH: And she says, no, it is. And I said, well, why didn't anyone tell me before? And she said, well, you'll have to wait until your father gets home.

CONAN: And what happened when you spoke with him?

KOREMATSU-HAIGH: He said that it happened a long time ago, and that what he did he felt was right, and the government was wrong, and it clearly was that simple to him. And I could see, however, the pain in his eyes, and I couldn't just go any further with any other questions. The irony to this story is that my brother, Ken, who is four years younger than I am, found out the same way in high school.

CONAN: So he still didn't tell your little brother.

KOREMATSU-HAIGH: No. My father said, you know, we're always very busy with our lives being Americans. I mean, that's what my father believed, was he wanted to get on and be an American and do all the activities that are privileged to us. And, you know, four years is a big gap difference in ages, and my brother was not even in high school yet. And I said, well, when are you going to tell me? He says, well, when you got older, and I said, well, I am older.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KOREMATSU-HAIGH: But it clearly was not a subject that he felt comfortable talking about.

CONAN: What was your reaction? I mean, at the same time, you're finding your father was a man who stood up for his principles, yet you were also finding out there's an important part of his story that he hadn't told you.

KOREMATSU-HAIGH: Yes, I didn't realize what it - at the time - what it meant to have a federal record. Certainly I asked my father if he could vote, and he could vote. But one - several years later he wanted to get his California real estate license, and he went through all the course and passed the test with flying colors, and then you fill out a form. And it - on that form there's a line item that says have you ever been convicted of a felony. And he was, and so therefore he couldn't get his California state - real estate license. And it was so, so sad because he felt like he - he'd been let down by his country again.

CONAN: Let - we forget, yes, he resisted, but that meant that he was charged with a crime, convicted of a crime, and I guess served some of that - his time at the concentration camp.

KOREMATSU-HAIGH: Yes, yes, he did along, with the rest of his family. But he also felt responsible for the loss of his Supreme Court case in 1944 in regard to the rest of the Japanese and Japanese-Americans that had been incarcerated, and he carried around the weight of that shame for almost 40 years.

CONAN: And it's implied in a documentary about your father that the people, the other Japanese-Americans in the camp, held him in disregard.

KOREMATSU-HAIGH: Yes. He was vilified from the moment that he resisted. And so when he went in to the - first it was at the Tanforan Racetrack, the assembly detention center in San Bruno, California, where everyone was to report. And no one wanted anything to do with him. They felt that if they associated with my father, that some harm might come to them or their families, and certainly he had disgraced my grandparents and our - and his family.

CONAN: We're talking with Karen Korematsu, daughter of Fred Korematsu, the civil rights activist whose legacy is being honored in California with Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and Constitution, and a special event later this week here in Washington, D.C.

KOREMATSU-HAIGH: Yes, we're very excited that we're going to have a special dedication and presentation of two of my father's photographs that were taken circa 1940. One is a headshot and the other one is him with his family and my uncles in the flower nursery in Oakland, California. And it's in a permanent exhibit called Struggle for Justice. And again, my father will be the first Asian-American to be in this permanent exhibition.

CONAN: We would like to hear from Japanese-Americans today. How did you find out about your family's experience during the Second Word War? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And Michelle is on the line calling from Tulsa.

MICHELLE: Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

MICHELLE: Sure. My grandfather, his name is Makoto Miyamoto. And he said that when he was young, they had a choice. They could go to Japanese interment or join the Army to show that they were Americans, and they felt like they wanted to be Americans, so he joined the Army and he was part of the 442nd.

CONAN: Famous battalion that fought in Italy.

MICHELLE: Yes. Yes. He was very decorated. I have a wall, you know, covered with medals that he earned, and just recently in October he got the Congressional Medal of Honor.

CONAN: That is an incredible honor and it is something - I believe that unit was more decorated than any comparable unit in the U.S. Army.

MICHELLE: Yes, they were given the most dangerous missions, you know, and he has some amazing stories.

CONAN: I wonder - I've spoken with many people who served in the Second World War, and they did not tell, a lot of them, their stories. For many years they just kept quiet. Was your grandfather that way?

MICHELLE: He didn't tell many people, but he told his family all the stories. I've always known those stories, you know? So it was really neat. We're very proud of him, and he wasn't necessarily, you know, proud. He felt like it was their duty as Americans to do that, so - but we're very proud of him.

CONAN: Of course, as you should be, as you should be. I've had the great opportunity to meet several people who've received the Medal of Honor, and to a man they all said the people who deserve those awards, in fact, never came back, and they're just lucky to be representative of their units and the people who truly deserve to be honored. I'm sure your grandfather did wonderful things.

MICHELLE: Thank you.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call, Michelle.

But it's interesting, Karen Korematsu, yes, went on to great achievement, but did not have much of a choice.

KOREMATSU-HAIGH: Well, yes. You know, also I'd like to point out that your caller said that, you know, her family knew about her grandfather. But there was really a code of silence among the Japanese-American community not to talk about their experience. They wanted just to get on with their lives and to prove that they were good Americans. In fact, I've had people ask me, you know, why did people willingly go into these camps? They felt that they - if they demonstrated their cooperation, that would prove their loyalty - pardon me - as Americans, and that's what was important to them.

CONAN: I believe it was just last year that an exhibit opened up at the site of the camp at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. Your father's family relocated to Topaz in Utah, but many others were in camps all throughout the West, one of them at Heart Mountain, and an exhibit has opened up there. I wondered if you've had the chance to see it.

KOREMATSU-HAIGH: No, I haven't.

(SOUNDBITE OF THROAT CLEARING)

KOREMATSU-HAIGH: Excuse me.

CONAN: All right. We're going to give you a chance to catch your breath for just a moment.

We're talking with Karen Korematsu, the daughter of Fred Korematsu, the civil rights champion whose legacy is being honored this week in California, as we mentioned, later this week in Washington, D.C. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we go next to Dave. Dave with us from San Francisco.

DAVE: Yes. Thank you. I'm chronologically challenged. I can't remember the exact year, but I was - it's just a great honor to some time back be granted the Fred Korematsu Award for Human Rights.

CONAN: Really?

DAVE: And it's just something that has stayed with me my entire life. Reading his story, listening to him whenever I could, it just - it's been a wonderful life-changing experience.

CONAN: Can you give us a capsule explanation of the reason you were awarded this honor?

DAVE: I was doing human rights work in Latin America, in particular late-'80s in Guatemala, and the surrounding environs, when there was, you know - I think future history books will (unintelligible) genocide back then, but certainly a lot of people were killed. A lot of people were both internally and externally displaced. Lives destructed forever. And during the time I had to spend weeks, sometimes months on end in the jungle, you know, tracking down refugees, things like that, and making sure that whatever help could be given was, whatever protection could be given was. And it was, you know, that work was all inspired by Mr. Korematsu, and his (unintelligible) achievements, which survive today.

CONAN: Karen Korematsu, that's another way your father's legacy is honored.

KOREMATSU-HAIGH: Yes, it's amazing. When my father was still living, we would be going to different events. And there are always young people that would come up to him and say, oh, Mr. Korematsu, you're the reason that I went to law school, or Mr. Korematsu, you're the reason that I'm involved in social justice. And clearly that's what my father had hoped for, that his story would be an inspiration and a lesson to - for others.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Dave.

DAVE: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see, we go next to Marissa. Marissa with us from San Jose.

MARISSA: Hi. My grandfather, his name is actually Ralph Horio, and he was in the Camp Tule Lake. But in San Jose he was a farmer, and he had orchards on the Chaboya farm. And he also was - him and the rest of family was actually part of the baseball teams that was going on in the internment camps. My grandfather actually helped write a book called "Asahi to Zebra" with a man named Ralph Pearce.

CONAN: And I think I read part of that book. It was about a young Japanese baseball star growing up in one of those camps, and the difficulties trying to get him placed in professional leagues.

MARISSA: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. I think I did read that book. That's interesting. And your grandfather worked on that, and what did he do after that in the rest of his life?

MARISSA: Well, for the rest - he actually tried to go to medical school but wasn't actually - I don't - he didn't tell me the full story. But the story come and goes that he wasn't able to finish school because after the camps he had to help take care of the family farm and the family business. And so he pursued professional photography after that. He took all sorts of pictures of weddings, models, and he went to all sorts of, you know, rock concerts with my mom and my uncles, like he saw Led Zeppelin and Kiss and the Ramones and did a bunch of photography.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Back in those ancient days, yes. Marissa, thanks very much for the call.

MARISSA: Thank you.

CONAN: Karen Korematsu, we just have a minute or so left with you. And we've been hearing a little bit about your dad's record as a civil rights champion. Tell us a little bit about him as a dad.

KOREMATSU-HAIGH: Well, he was a wonderful father. I was very close to him, and he was a very kind and generous and loving person. He loved animals, and he felt like everyone was as honest as he was. He never was angry or bitter about his experience. He only just believed deep down inside that someday perhaps he would be able to find justice, you know, not for only himself, but for all Japanese-Americans that had been incarcerated. You know, his story is an American story, and I think that's why it resonates so much today. And the significance is also the story of 120,000 Japanese-Americans that were interned into these camps. But they - but you could tell that they're all truly American stories.

CONAN: Karen Korematsu, thanks very much. And good luck later this week at the ceremony at the Smithsonian.

KOREMATSU-HAIGH: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Karen Korematsu joined us from KQED, our member station in San Francisco. Her father's portrait will be the first Asian-American to join the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery's permanent exhibition Struggle for Justice. Tomorrow, a new report on segregation in America and what it calls the end of the segregated century. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.