In 1942 at the age of 23, an American citizen named Fred Korematsu experienced something that still reverberates in the legal world today.
The United States government arrested and jailed Korematsu after he refused to go willingly to an incarceration camp for Japanese Americans. The camps, more commonly referred to as internment camps, were established through an executive order by then-Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt, and existed from 1942 to 1945.
Korematsu appealed his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled against him in 1944, yet, almost 75 years later, Korematsu is considered by many to be a civil rights hero. The institute that bears his name serves as an educational organization promoting global human rights around the world.
The Fred T. Korematsu Institute was founded by Korematsu’s daughter Karen in 2009. She currently serves as its executive director and travels far and wide fulfilling the institute’s mission.
Korematsu is in Dayton this weekend for several speaking engagements.
Korematsu says her father’s story is one that should never be forgotten, and one that has parallels to our modern-day social and political society. She describes her father as "very soft spoken," but also a man who lived by the principles of right and wrong.
"And he thought it was wrong," she says. "I mean, why should he go to a prison camp when he had done nothing wrong and give up his his life? And he knew, as an American citizen, he had rights."
Korematsu says her father and every person forced into interment camps in 1942 and during the years that followed were denied those same rights.
"You were denied any access to an attorney. There were never any formal charges and you didn't have your day in court, and that's a big part of what an being an American is all about," she says.
Legal challenges weren't the only obstacles Fred Korematsu faced in his search for justice, says his daughter. After his arrest and detainment in a federal institution, Korematsu was delivered to the internment camp he had refused to go to 30 days earlier. It was there, she says, that he was ostracized by members of his own Japanese-American community.
"The men [in the camp] got together and decided whether or not my father should continue fighting his case. They didn't even invite my father to the meeting," she says. "Afterwards my dad asked his oldest brother what happened and he said, well, Fred, we don't want you to continue fighting your case because some harm might come to us."
"Everyone was scared," she adds. "At the time, and you can imagine, they didn't know what was going to happen to them. They didn't know where they were going. And it was a very scary time. And so it's a human reaction, but my dad was steadfast in his belief that he was going to keep fighting."
Through her work at the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, Karen Korematsu employs her father's legacy and ideals of justice as an educational tool. The institute has developed a curriculum around the civil rights leader's experience and offers them at no cost to K-12 educators.
"It's important that people remember, that we learn the lessons of history," Korematsu says, "and if I can help to remind people of appreciating our differences instead of being afraid of them, then that's what I'm hoping to achieve."