Japanese American

Fred Korematsu and The Struggle for Justice

Telling the Story of Civil Rights in America: Fred Korematsu and The Struggle for Justice

Fred T. Korematsu. Hand-colored gelatin silver print, c. 1940. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Fred T. Korematsu Family.

On February 2, 2012, our colleague, the National Portrait Gallery welcomes two photographs of Fred Korematsu (1919-2005) into The Struggle for Justice (2nd Floor), the incredible exhibition about civil rights in America.  Korematsu’s images will join portraits of cultural and political icons such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Betty Friedan, César Chávez, Leonard Crow Dog, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver.   Their images are windows onto the journey for civil rights and justice; together, their stories invoke the powerful sentiment from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The photographs are gifts of the Fred T. Korematsu Family, a relationship that was cultivated by Ling Woo Liu, director of Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education.  Korematsu is the first Asian American featured in the exhibition and joins a growing collection of Asian American portraits at the NPG that includes APAP’s gift portrait of the Honorable Norman Mineta and Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter.

Born and raised in Oakland, California, Korematsu challenged the legality of Executive Order (EO) 9066, the action that authorized the internment of Korematsu and 120,000 other Japanese Americans during World War II.  Americans with heritages that could be traced to the other nations at war with the U.S. at the time—Germany and Italy—were not interned.  Korematsu refused the order.  While Korematsu argued that the order violated his freedoms guaranteed to him as a U.S. citizen by the U.S. Constitution, he was convicted.  His appeals went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in a split decision that the internment was a military necessity.  Korematsu maintained that the basis of his conviction was a clear case of injustice.  After the release of Japanese Americans following the end of World War II, the internment of Japanese Americans remained an unresolved issue for America.

Fred Korematsu

Fred T. Korematsu (center). Gelatin silver print, 1939. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Fred T. Korematsu Family

Japanese Americans, researchers, legal experts, a Presidential Commission, and others, continued to review the circumstances and actions behind the internment.  Archival and legal research revealed that documents disputing the justification for the internment were suppressed.  Korematsu’s case was reopened and on November 10, 1983, his conviction was overturned.  The message was powerful, especially for those who were interned: Americans of Japanese descent had done nothing wrong by virtue of their heritage; they were, first and foremost, Americans.  In 1988, Japanese Americans impacted by EO 9066 received redress and reparations from the U.S. government.

Korematsu is a symbol for civil rights and justice.  His opposition to EO 9066 on legal and moral grounds joins the other voices in The Struggle for Justice who were similarly committed to a concept of American democracy that lives up to its ideals.  On every January 30, the state of California will celebrate Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, the first day in U.S. history to be named after an Asian American.

It will be seventy years since the signing of EO 9066, an event that is the subject of APAP’s Annual Day of Remembrance Program on February 18, 2012 at the National Museum of American History.   The APAP is part of the largest museum and research complex in the world and our role is to connect Americans with their rich heritage and history.


Update February 7, 2012

Fred Korematsu Portrait Presentation

From left: Ken Korematsu, Karen Korematsu, and Congresswoman Doris Matsui

The Smithsonian APA Program attended a special presentation and reception for the portrait of Fred Korematsu on February 2, 2012. Two photographs of Korematsu are on display in the Struggle for Justice exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Click here for more photos from the event, including speakers and guests.


One thought on “Fred Korematsu and The Struggle for Justice

  1. Catalina Carvajal says:

    I believe a film should be made of this experience. Here in Tucson AZ we have a Japanese prison camp…all that is left are the stone steps that led up to the headquarters. What a black cloud on so-called civil rights!

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