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And I'm Robert Siegel. Today is the first official "Fred Korematsu Day," in the state of Illinois. It's the fourth state to honor Korematsu as the Japanese-American civil rights hero by recognizing his birthday. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji has more.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Today would've been Fred Korematsu's 95th birthday. He died in 2005, but if he were still here, his daughter Karen Korematsu says they'd probably...
KAREN KOREMATSU: Go out for dinner to eat in a nice restaurant.
MERAJI: She says going out to eat meant something to her father, that one of his earliest memories of discrimination was being turned away from a local diner.
KOREMATSU: This cook behind the counter said, hey boy, what do you want? And my father said, well, I want to get something to eat. No, you don't belong here and called him a lot of racist names. Go down to Chinatown. Just get out of here.
MERAJI: Fred Korematsu was a Japanese American born in Oakland, California. In just a handful of years after that diner incident, he was arrested and convicted for failing to report for relocation. Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor six months earlier.
FRED KOREMATSU: I thought the exclusion order would be only for aliens and those that were born in Japan. I didn't think that a government would go as far as to include American citizens.
MERAJI: That's Korematsu from the documentary "Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: the Fred Korematsu Story." He found internment all the way to the Supreme Court, but it ruled against him with six of the nine justices saying protecting the U.S. against spying during World War II outweighed the rights of Japanese Americans. Korematsu waited for that verdict at a prison camp in the middle of the Utah desert, a decision many have called one of the worst in the Supreme Court's history.
Theresa Mah first heard about him in an Asian American history class as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley.
THERESA MAH: When I first learned about it, it was really important because, you know, there were questions about whether - well, you know, just the idea of whether Asian Americans fight back, you know, fight for civil rights because the stories aren't out there.
MERAJI: A quarter of a century later, she's the director of Asian-American outreach for the governor of Illinois and it was her idea to have the state recognize Fred Korematsu Day along with California, Utah and Hawaii. Fred Korematsu's daughter, Karen, hopes that it will become a federal holiday so more people will know her father's story.
KOREMATSU: Yes. And if he were here, he would say, don't be afraid to speak up.
MERAJI: And that one person can make a difference, even if it takes 40 years. Korematsu's case was reopened in 1983 and his conviction overturned in federal court. But that 1944 Supreme Court ruling, it still stands. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.
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