Sufyan Sohel Speaks on Panel Honoring Fred Korematsu Day

On Tuesday, February 9th, 2016, CAIR-Chicago co-sponsored and participated in an event honoring the legacy of Fred Korematsu at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law.   CAIR-Chicago Deputy Director presented at the event which also featured William Yoshino, the Midwest Director of the Japanese American Citizens League, Shubra Ohri of the People’s Law Office and Enoch Kanaya a Minidoka Concentration Camp survivor and decorated member of the U.S. armed services.  The event also included a special screening of the Fred Korematsu documentary, “Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story,” which tells “the untold history of the 40-year legal fight to vindicate Korematsu — one that finally turned a civil injustice into a civil rights victory.”

Many students commented that learning about the Fred Korematsu story served as a useful reminder as to why they chose to attend law school, and were grateful to learn about Japanese American’s internment experiences from Mr. Yoshino and Mr. Kanaya. Sohel discussed the impact of the struggles and sacrifices of Japanese Americans like Korematsu on contemporary civil rights issues, highlighting the Japanese American community’s support for Muslims and Arab Americans in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks as well as state inaction to combat racism against Muslims as exemplified through rhetoric about Syrian refugees, special registration program, police profiling, and constant surveillance of Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim.  He encouraged law students to engage their legislators, vote and to participate in conversations about race and social justice.

Historical Background:

In February of 1942, in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the federal government declared that all people of Japanese ancestry were to be excluded from the Pacific coast of the United States. Approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals were forcibly relocated to internment camps. Fred Korematsu refused to obey the order to leave his home, and was arrested and convicted of evading internment. His case was eventually appealed to the US Supreme Court, where the Court ruled that the government’s need to protect against espionage outweighed Korematsu’s rights (Korematsu v. United States, 1944). Justice Black argued that compulsory exclusion,though constitutionally suspect, is justified during circumstances of “emergency and peril.”

In 1983, Professor Peter Irons, a legal historian, together with researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, discovered key documents that government intelligence agencies had hidden from the Supreme Court in 1944. The documents consistently showed that Japanese Americans had committed no acts of treason to justify mass incarceration. With this new evidence, a legal team of mostly Japanese American attorneys re-opened Korematsu’s 40 year-old case on the basis of government misconduct.

On November 10, 1983, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of the U.S. District Court of Northern California in San Francisco formally overturned Korematsu’s conviction. It was a pivotal moment in U.S. civil rights history. Mr. Korematsu stood in front of Judge Patel and stated, “According to the Supreme Court decision regarding my case, being an American citizen was not enough. They say you have to look like one, otherwise they say you can’t tell a difference between a loyal and a disloyal American. I thought that this decision was wrong and I still feel that way. As long as my record stands in federal court, any American citizen can be held in prison or concentration camps without a trial or a hearing. That is if they look like the enemy of our country. Therefore, I would like to see the government admit that they were wrong and do something about it so this will never happen again to any American citizen of any race, creed or color. ”

Although Judge Patel’s ruling cleared Korematsu’s conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1944 ruling still stands. It would require a similar test case, involving a mass banishment of a single ethnic group, to challenge the original Supreme Court decision.

In 1998, President Clinton awarded Fred Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Fred Korematsu Day is recognized in California as “Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution” and is the first day in U.S. history named after an Asian American.

Photo courtesy of Chicago-Kent College of Law, used by permission.