Convicted of
Standing Up for His Rights
Korematsu Earns
The President's Medal of Freedom

By Regina Garson

Convicted of standing up for his rights as an American citizen, Fred Korematsu lived for 40 years as a criminal. For 56 years he worked to clear his name. After a fight that lasted nearly a lifetime, he was successful. His name was cleared and his courage acknowledged. In doing so, he was awarded the President's Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian award. President Clinton presented the award in an official White House Ceremony on the birthday of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Born in Oakland, California, Korematsu grew up an American citizen. His parents were Japanese immigrants who made their livelihood operating a flower nursery. English was his native language. He grew up a typical American boy.

His world changed after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Japanese Americans were regarded as a threat to the United States. They were put under curfews and interrogations as the FBI searched for spies. President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, known as the Exclusion Order. In theory it required relocation of descendants and immigrants from enemy nations who might be a threat to US security. In practice, it amounted to legalized racism against Japanese Americans.

West Coast Japanese Americans were ordered to report to assembly centers for Internment. There were no trials or hearings. In being forced to evacuate; many lost everything, including their homes and businesses. Vehicles and other belongings were sold below value, given away, or looted if left behind.

Fred Korematsu refused to go. He was an American citizen. He wanted to help in the war effort, but was treated like the enemy. After refusing to report for internment, he was arrested and convicted for violating the exclusion orders. Sentenced to five years probation, he and his family were then sent to a Camp in Topaz, Utah.

Korematsu appealed his conviction all the way to the Supreme Court, but it was upheld. For 56 years he fought to clear his name.

In 1984, with newly recovered evidence the government omitted evidence, and provided misleading information, his original conviction was overturned. A Federal district court found the Government's exclusion and detention actions during the war legally insupportable and violated the constitutional rights of Japanese Americans. This decision provided the impetus for the 1988 Civil Liberties Act in which the U.S. government apologized for the forced internment of Japanese American citizens. Each internee was compensated with a payment of $20,000. Korematsu's case is now considered one of the most important legal cases in civil and minority rights.

In the White House Award Presentation Ceremony, President Clinton said, "In 1942, an ordinary American took an extraordinary stand. Fred Korematsu boldly opposed the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. After being convicted for failing to report for relocation, Mr. Korematsu took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. The high court ruled against him. But 39 years later, he had his conviction overturned in federal court, empowering tens of thousands of Japanese Americans and giving him what he said he wanted most of all -- the chance to feel like an American once again. In the long history of our country's constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls: Plessy. Brown. Parks. To that distinguished list, today we add the name of Fred Korematsu."