Not Giving Up: Fred Korematsu Lives On

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Today is the Fred T. Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution. Tonight, at NYCLA’s Andrew Hamilton Hall, our principal, Vinoo Varghese, along with fellow members of the Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY) will be honoring Mr. Korematsu by reenacting the story of Korematsu v. United States. This was the 1944 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said that imprisoning 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II was fine under the Constitution. Mr. Korematsu was jailed for opposing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s imprisonment order.

While Mr. Korematsu lost in the Supreme Court in 1944, he and those who supported him didn’t give up fighting.  In the early 1980s, a group of dedicated professors and lawyers discovered that the government in 1944 had deliberately misled the U.S. Supreme Court by withholding reports that Japanese-Americans posed no security threat.  Due to this startling revelation, which the government conceded, The Honorable Marilyn Hall Patel of the Northern District of California vacated his conviction in 1983.  This did not, however, overturn the centerpiece of the 1944 Supreme Court decision-that the President had the authority to jail Americans solely on account of race.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Mr. Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  He died seven years later.  To commemorate Mr. Korematsu’s birthday, on January 30, 2011, California under then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger became the first state to observe the annual Fred T. Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution.  In 2017, New York City passed a resolution to honor Mr. Korematsu today, his birthday.

Last year, when the Supreme Court upheld President Trump’s Travel Ban in Trump v. Hawaii, it for the first time saidKorematsu v. United States was decided wrongly. Chief Justice Roberts declared “[t]he forcible relocation of U.S. citizens to concentration camps, solely and explicitly on the basis of race, is objectively unlawful and outside the scope of presidential authority…Korematsu was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and – to be clear – ‘has no place in law under the Constitution.’”

Vinoo Varghese standing alongside Karen Korematsu, daughter of Fred Korematsu
Vinoo Varghese standing alongside Karen Korematsu, daughter of Fred Korematsu

For the past 12 years, Vinoo has been part of a team from AABANY that has put on various historical reenactments under the tutelage of The Honorable Denny Chin of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and his wife, Kathy Chin. Also participating tonight will be The Honorable Kiyo Matsumoto of the Eastern District of New York and The Honorable Ona T. Wang of the Southern District of New York.

The AABANY cast of Fred Korematsu and His Fight for Justice
The AABANY cast of Fred Korematsu and His Fight for Justice

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