The Heroism and Leadership of Fred Korematsu

Fred KorematsuBy Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

Heroes show leadership by taking steps to save or improve our lives.  A hero’s leadership can be direct, as when the leader interacts directly with followers, or it can be indirect, as when the leader’s works and deeds provide an example or model for others.  Two of the 20th century’s greatest indirect leaders were Rosa Parks and Fred Korematsu.  Parks became a civil rights hero when she refused to vacate her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955.  Korematsu’s indirect leadership is not as well known but is no less important.

Korematsu was an ordinary 22 year-old American living in Oakland, California, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  In the weeks that followed, Americans feared another Japanese attack on the west coast of the United States. Racial discrimination against Japanese-Americans, already a problem before Pearl Harbor, became intensified.  Korematsu was fired from his job as a welder in a shipyard, simply because of his ancestry.

Ten weeks after the attack, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 9066, which required all people of Japanese ancestry along the entire Pacific coast, including all of California and most of Oregon and Washington, to leave their homes and report to internment camps.  At the time, most Americans supported Roosevelt’s decision.  Even the Los Angeles Times defended it:  “While it might cause injustice to a few to treat them all as potential enemies,” wrote the editor, “I cannot escape the conclusion… that such treatment… should be accorded to each and all of them while we are at war with their race.”

Most Japanese-Americans complied with Executive Order 9066 to demonstrate their loyalty to America and its laws.  But KorematsuKorematsu recognized the inherent injustice of the decree.  “I was just living my life, and that’s what I wanted to do,” he said in a 1987 interview.

Korematsu did not turn himself in to authorities.  Consequently, he was arrested, jailed, convicted of a felony, and sent to the Topaz internment camp in Utah.

While imprisoned at the camp, Korematsu appealed his conviction, arguing that his constitutional rights had been violated.  The court ruled against him.  In 1944 he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction in a 6-3 decision, authored by Justice Hugo Black.  The Court ruled that Executive Order 9066, though constitutionally suspect, is justified during times of “emergency and peril”.

After the war, Korematsu waited nearly 40 years to clear his name.  In 1982 he obtained suppressed government documents indicating that the forced relocation of Americans to internment camps was motivated by racism, not military necessity.  With this evidence, the courts overturned Korematsu’s conviction.  In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.  At the ceremony Clinton said, “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.”

Heroism can take time.  Leaders know when to stay the course, and heroic leaders such as Korematsu stay the course to its triumphant conclusion.  “It may take time to prove you’re right,” he said, “but you have to stick to it.”  In the face of injustice, he urged people “to protest, but not with violence, and don’t be afraid to speak up.  One person can make a difference, even if it takes forty years.”

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One of our readers suggested that we profile Fred Korematsu.  We welcome your suggestions as well.  Please send your ideas to Scott T. Allison (sallison@richmond.edu) or to George R. Goethals (ggoethal@richmond.edu).

9 Responses to “The Heroism and Leadership of Fred Korematsu”


  • What a great story. I’d completely forgotten about Fred Korematsu. There were so many other civil rights and religious rights folks persecuted and imprisoned during the War. More than a few Quakers, Mennonites and other Peace Church folks went to prison or camps rather than serve in the Armed Forces. On the other hand, and not to defend the Government’s actions, it’s also easy to forget the fears of the early war years. In NYC, we were afraid that somehow, the Nazi’s had long-range bombers and were going to blitz Manhattan as they had London. Down here, German subs were sinking dozens of ships right off the Virginia Beach and NC Coasts with impunity. At best, we were able to deploy a few old destroyers, Coast Guard Cutters and civilian fishing boats as defense. Japanese balloon fire bombs were hitting the Oregon coasts and forests. And, Japan had even invaded the Aleutian Islands which are the farthest eastern part of Alaska. Also for us NYC Jews, there was an active Nazi threat. Prior to Pearl Harbor, egged on by Father Coughlin and other demagogues, The American Brownshirts could muster a million marchers on the streets of Brownsville, the German neighborhood of Manhattan. It was not uncommon to see swastikas, Nazi Pins and posters. The hate towards Roosevelt and the antisemitism were palpable. Again, not to defend the internments, but to clarify that they occurred in a tense, frightened and dangerous atmosphere. Actually, I think that this environment makes Fred Korematsu’s actions even more heroic. It is never easy to speak truth to power, today or then. Thanks guys for a great post.

  • I was just looking around the web and came across your blog. You have some great content on this site that I can tell you put some serious work into writting. Thanks for the info, I will be back for sure.

  • I was so glad that Korematsu was chosen to appear on this blog. Fred Korematsu is very much an unsung hero in American history. His name is hardly mentioned in history classes. Though, having done a good deal of research on civil rights and civil liberties Fred Korematsu’s legacy is very much something to be remembered. In a time of blatant injustice, Korematsu stood up to the United States Federal Government. He wasn’t afraid to do what was right in the face of incredible adversity.

    The terrifying fact of the matter is that this law that he fought so hard to overturn is still on the books. It was never formally overturned. The US government offered the Japanese reparations but the fact of the matter that the power to detain an entire race or ethnic group is still a legitimate power.

    The only way to stop this from happening again is to remember Korematsu’s legacy. It makes me wish that he appears more often in textbooks and class discussions.

  • @admin: I just have to say your website is the first I’ve come across today that doesn’t have typos every other sentence. Thanks for taking the time to construct something that doesn’t look like a 5th grader put together. Sorry, just had to vent.

  • Fred Korematsu is awesome, so glad he stood up against the persecution. I am disgusted by the treatment of our own people. Can anybody say airport scanners?

    Toni

  • I enjoyed reading about this because it educated me on a history of the American government that I was not that familiar about. It was shocking to learn that our own government instilled facilities to hold people based on there ethnicity during war. While I still recognize that it is nothing like the camps in Europe run by the Nazis, it is still sad that our government had to resort to some form of racism not so long ago.

  • He is just simply one of the men we should admire. To commemorate his journey as a civil rights activist, the “Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution” was observed for first time on January 30, 2011, by the state of California, and first such commemoration for an Asian American in the US.

  • Thanks for another great post, Scotty and George. I had never heard of Fred Korematsu until now. He definitely meets my definition of hero.

    It’s tragic that we’ve had events like this happen in the United States; it’s a mockery of the principles that our society was founded on. I admire people like Korematsu who respond with peaceful civil disobedience and who have the backbone to face the consequences of their actions to make their point. Too many people respond with violence or desertion or apathy. We have to remember that it takes more than words on paper to create a more perfect union; it takes people who live by those words, it takes courage and determination and commitment, and it takes time.

    Luckily, we have guys like Fred Korematsu.

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