Do you know Fred? The new Fred T. Korematsu Institute, the Asian Law Caucus dinner, and the art of going amok softly

The only thing that gives you, me,  and anyone else in this great country the right to go amok is the Constitution. And if there’s a question about that, thank God there are  lawyers at the Asian Law Caucus to make sure that we get every last right coming to us.

ALC makes sure our silence isn’t confused for a tacit acceptance of any injustice that may come our way. Groups like ALC on the West Coast and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund on the East Coast fight for us and earn our support. And at this year’s ALC fundraising dinner in San Francisco  this Thursday night (, the group is adding a new weapon to its arsenal–the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education.

Its principle goal is to make sure no one forgets who Fred Korematsu is.

Please tell me you know who Fred Korematsu is.

His name should be as iconic as Rosa Parks. Beyond our Asian American community, the Korematsu’s name should hold equal value as a symbol of freedom. For just as Parks courageously fought racism, so did Korematsu in 1942.

He was the guy who quietly went amok, and told the government where to stick it.

After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. told more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent to go into internment camps. But Korematsu refused. He said no to internment, no to injustice. No to racism.

Imagine standing up to the government while others compliantly went along.

Korematsu was arrested and jailed in 1942. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, with the government defending its racism claiming that Japanese Americans were transmitting radio signals to enemy ships. Their status as Americans didn’t matter much, but their ethnicity as Japanese alone put them under suspicion. That was enough for the high court to uphold racism’s use as a weapon against its own people.

It wasn’t until four decades later that legal scholars, specifically Professor Peter Irons, dug through Justice Dept. archives and found official memos that proved the idea of Japanese Americans spying to be false. The memos had been suppressed and the court never heard these official declarations.

In 1983, the Korematsu case was reopened. And in 1984, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of the U.S. District Court of Northern California vacated the sentence.  The felony conviction was erased.

But the negative Supreme Court ruling remains, ready to be invoked at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.

Now you know Fred’s story, and why to the day he died in 2005 at age 86, he was uncomfortable with the Bush Administration and specifically Attorney General John Ashcroft’s attempts to round up ethnic Americans after 9-11.

“My father was disgusted because he felt he had re-opened his case in vain,” said Karen Korematsu. Fred Korematsu’s daughter, who added that her father was angered to see the Bush administration harass  innocent people. “He said we have to speak out. We can’t let them do to Arabs and Muslims what they did to Japanese Americans.”

In that way, the institute honors the legacy of Karen Korematsu’s father. She sees it as a place for education and networking throughout all communities in the U.S. and the world  that mayface similar civil rights and human rights issues.

“We have an opportunity to partner in a more supportive way,” suggesting outreach efforts to other groups that could be targeted in the future by extreme government actions.

“My father was the pebble thrown in the pond,” said Karen Korematsu. “And now we’re outreaching to other Americans and people throughout the world.”

I never met Fred Korematsu, though he remains an inspiration to me. He was a person who despite his quiet and demure exterior mustered the courage to take an unprecedented stand.

He stepped out of the crowd being herded to the camps and dared to go amok, albeit in his own quiet way. Was it suicide?  It’s made him a hero.

“My father didn’t have a big ego,” said Karen Korematsu. “He was a principled person who had a deep feeling of right and wrong. And he felt he was right and the government was wrong. It’s as simple as that.”