Nearly 70 years after Fred Korematsu refused a federal order at the outbreak of World War II to evacuate to an internment camp, the Assembly voted Thursday to honor him as a civil rights leader by designating an annual day in his honor.
Assembly Bill 1775, which passed 63-0, would recognize the Bay Area Japanese-American man's Jan. 30 birthday as "Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties," a special day of significance in which schools would be urged to commemorate his memory.
The bill by Assemblyman Warren Furutani, D-Los Angeles, now goes to the Senate.
Democratic Assemblyman Marty Block of San Diego characterized Korematsu, pictured right with President Bill Clinton, as "an ordinary citizen whose fight to protect his own rights reminds us of the importance of preserving them for all people."
A legislative committee analysis of AB 1775 gave the following account of Korematsu's story:
A Bay Area resident, Korematsu hid in the Oakland hills after balking at an internment camp order on May 3, 1942. He was arrested in San Leandro weeks later, convicted of violating a military order, and held in a Utah internment camp.
Korematsu appealed his conviction, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union, and the case ultimately led to a 6-3 U.S. Supreme Court decision that such internment was justified during circumstances of "emergency and peril."
President Franklin D. Roosevelt rescinded his order requiring internment of Japanese Americans in 1944, less than three years after issuing it. The last camp was closed by the end of 1945.
Roughly 40 years after the Supreme Court's decision in the Korematsu case, researchers in California uncovered evidence that the U.S. solicitor general who had argued the government's case had deliberately suppressed evidence.
A U.S. District Court in San Francisco formally vacated Korematsu's conviction in 1983.
At the time, Korematsu, in a statement to U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel said, "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.
"If anyone should do any pardoning," Korematsu added, "I should be the one pardoning the government for what they did to the Japanese-American people."
In 1988, President Bill Clinton awarded Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.
"In the long history of our country's constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls," Clinton said. "Plessy, Brown, Parks ... to that distinguished list, today we add the name of Fred Korematsu."
Korematsu, nearing death, encouraged others to "protest, but not with violence, and don't be afraid to speak up. One person can make a difference, even if it takes 40 years."
PHOTO CREDIT: President Bill Clinton, right, presents Fred Korematsu with a Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House in Washington on Jan. 15, 1998. Associated Press file photo/Dennis Cook.