Sunday, October 30, 2005

United States of America vs. Me

At age 86, Fred Korematsu died on 31 March 2005. Like Rosa Parks, he challenged the injustice of racial discrimination, was arrested, and finally forced America to apologize for the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Unlike Rosa Parks, he did not receive the honor of lying in state under the US Capitol Rotunda.

Fred grew up in Oakland and worked in his family's nursery. He ate hamburgers and lived a typical American life. He worked as a welder in the shipyard until he lost his job for no reason. He tried to enlist for military service and was refused.

Rumors about "Japs" splashed the headlines in the newspapers. War was brewing. Some restaurants refused to serve Japanese-Americans. In 1942, the U.S. government sent those of Japanese descent to internment camps in the Western desert. Fred didn't want to go because he was an American. We were fighting the Japanese, Germans and Italians, but no German-Americans or Italian-Americans were rounded up.

Fred's family feared his resistance would shame them, but Fred was a true citizen who loved his country. He was being targeted because of the color of his skin and the shape of his eyes. Soon arrested, Fred was sent to Tanforan Race Track where families lived in horse stalls that smelled like manure. He was then sent to Topaz, a camp in the Utah desert. Barbed-wire fences surrounded the innocent prisoners and guards perched on watchtowers armed with machine guns.

After four years in the camps, the Japanese-Americans carried their shame with their silence as they returned home quietly. Homes, farms, businesses and possessions were lost. Fred journeyed to Salt Lake City where he repaired water tanks at an ironworks plant and then worked in Detroit.

He had begun a legal case protesting the internment that progressed all the way to the Supreme Court, but he lost. Fred married and had two children. Like many Japanese-Americans, he didn't discuss the camps over the years. Yet he believed "it may take time to prove you're right, but you have to stick to it. In 1988, almost half a century after the orders were issued, justice prevailed.

Government officials had claimed that the internment was due to "military necessity," but evidence revealed that the order was based on racial prejudice. The government admitted that the Japanese-Americans had posed no risk to homeland security. The court decision led to an apology by the government and reparations for 120,000 living concentration camp survivors. In 1998, President Clinton honored Fred Korematsu with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Clinton said Fred was a man of quiet bravery who only wanted to be treated like every other American.