In the spring of 1942, Fred Korematsu paid a back-alley plastic surgeon to alter his eyelids to make him look less Japanese.
His race was ruining his life.
First, his ancestry cost him his job. He had worked as a welder in the Oakland shipyards, but got fired after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. His boss thought his ethnicity made him a security risk. Fred looked in vain for another job, but no one was hiring “Japs” during wartime in the Bay Area.
Then, he lost his girlfriend. Her Italian parents had never approved of Fred, but now they forbade her to see him at all.
Finally, his race threatened his freedom. In May of 1942, the US government ordered all persons of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast to report for internment. More than 110,000 dutifully obeyed. Shipped off to remote concentration camps, they passed the war behind barbed wire, under armed guard.
Fred was one of the few Japanese Americans who defied the order. After enduring the crude operation on his eyelids, he adopted the alias of Clyde Sarah and tried to make a new life for himself, claiming Spanish and Hawaiian ancestry.
It did not work. Promptly arrested for looking Japanese, Fred found himself in a San Francisco prison, charged with violating the internment order. Though represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, he was swiftly convicted, sentenced and sent to a concentration camp in Utah.
Fred and the ACLU appealed. However, in 1944, the US Supreme Court upheld his conviction, ruling that wartime necessity justified the internment of Japanese Americans. Writing for the 6–3 majority, Justice Hugo Black — a former Klansman — declared:
“Korematsu was not excluded from the Military Area because of hostility to him or his race. He was excluded because we are at war with the Japanese Empire, because the properly constituted military authorities feared an invasion of our West Coast and felt constrained to take proper security measures, because they decided that the military urgency of the situation demanded that all citizens of Japanese ancestry be segregated from the West Coast temporarily.”
After the war, Fred lived and worked in Detroit for a few years before returning to the Bay Area.
Three decades later, a historian discovered that federal prosecutors had suppressed evidence in Fred’s case. Specifically, the solicitor general failed to disclose naval intelligence reports that questioned the military necessity of internment. Thus, a federal court vacated Fred’s conviction in 1983.
In 1998, Bill Clinton honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. After 9/11, Fred spoke up for the rights of Muslim Americans. He died in 2005.
Today — his birthday — is Fred Korematsu Day in California and Michigan.
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