Lately, I keep only one business card in my wallet all the time (pictured, right). It was given to me at last year’s AAJA Conference by Ling Woo Liu, Director of the Korematsu Instutute for Civil Rights and Education. When a day is hitting me especially hard, an effort feeling overwhelmingly like an up-mountain climb, or I’m struggling to rustle up the conviction to fight against something that’s effed-up in this effed-up world (like we sometimes do on this blog), I pull out the wrinkled card and look at Korematsu’s warm, happy face, the Medal of Freedom on his neck, and the pride in his eyes.
I am reminded of a man who never hesitated to fight for what he knew in his heart was right–who didn’t back down even when his efforts were fruitless.
For those who aren’t familiar with his story…
An American-born citizen and Oakland resident, Korematsu resisted internment as a young man of 22, just four months after the Attack on Pearl Harbor. He fled to Nevada, but within months was caught on a street corner and arrested, then sent to an internment camp in Utah (a facility originally designed to board horses). Still, Korematsu didn’t waver. Two years later, he appealed his case with the help of the ACLU in 1944–and lost. Though he moved forward with his life (bearing the handicap of his conviction quietly), built a family from which he withheld the secret shame of his failed fight and imprisonment, he never shook the sense that what happened to him was wrong, nor let go of his desire to make things right. Finally, in 1983, with the aid of a historian and team of lawyers, he succeeded in getting his conviction overturned. He then committed the last years of his life to civil rights activism, with the goal to educate and remind.
When I met Ling and learned about the Korematsu Institute, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had not yet signed Fred Korematsu Day–the first day named after an Asian American in the history of the United States–into law. That happened on September 23 of last year.
Yesterday, Fred Korematsu Day was celebrated for the first time ever. And even though he is no longer alive to do so, Korematsu will always teach and remind us that fighting for what is right may never be easy, nor comfortable–but it isn’t comfort or ease that lights up a man’s eyes with pride. The truth, however, does.
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