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9.13.2010

guest post: why korematsu day is important

I'm on vacation! Taking a much-needed break. But don't worry. While I'm away, I've enlisted some great guest bloggers to keep things going around here. Here's Ling Woo Liu on the legacy of Fred Korematsu.

Who were your heroes when you were growing up? Think back to your high school or college days. What posters did you hang on your bedroom walls? Maybe pictures of singers and bands, movies and actors and perhaps some scantily-clad eye candy. Now, think again: how many people in those images looked like you or represented something that you believed in?

Last month, the Fred Korematsu Day bill was passed by the California legislature after a series of unanimous votes. It's now on the desk of Gov. Schwarzenegger, who has until Sept. 30 to sign the bill into law. If passed, this will be one of the first days officially named after an Asian American/Pacific Islander or hell, after any ethnic minority in the US! With all of the days that come and go, from federal holidays such as Memorial Day and Labor Day to not-so-official commemorations like Groundhog Day and Earth Day, why should we add Fred Korematsu Day to the list of days we celebrate?

There are many good reasons. First, Fred Korematsu, like Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez and Harvey Milk, was a national civil rights icon who represented courage. In 1942, the 23 year-old welder bravely refused to report to the government's concentration camps for Japanese Americans. After he was arrested, he continued to fight by taking his case to the Supreme Court, which ruled against him, saying that the incarceration was justified due to military necessity. Thirteen years before Mrs. Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, 21 years before Dr. King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, 23 years before Cesar Chavez launched the grape pickers' strike, and 35 years before Harvey Milk was finally elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Fred Korematsu took this lonely stand, and invited the weight of a civil rights catastrophe onto his shoulders. (Photo: Shirley Nakao, Courtesy of the Korematsu Institute)

Second, Korematsu's legacy is more relevant now than ever. Nearly a decade after 9/11, we are still seeing Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian Americans systematically profiled at airports, in places of worship, and in their own homes. We are seeing a disturbing rise in Islamophobia among both conservatives and moderates. We are seeing multiple states considering bills like Arizona's SB 1070, which targets anyone who fits the profile of an undocumented immigrant. The purpose of Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, as well as the related classroom curriculum being prepared by the Korematsu Institute, is to educate students and the general public about Korematsu's legacy so that we can curtail racial and religious profiling today. "No one should ever be locked away simply because they share the same race, ethnicity, or religion as a spy or terrorist, " Korematsu wrote in an op/ed article in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004, the year before he passed away.

Third, Korematsu's story is one of persistence and victory. In 1983, with the help of a heroic team of young pro-bono attorneys, Korematsu re-opened his case on the grounds of government misconduct. On November 10 of that year, a judge in a federal court overturned Korematsu's conviction. I've been told that there wasn't a dry eye in the courtroom that day.

If the Korematsu Day bill passes, we'll be printing posters for you to hang in your bedroom, next to your posters of Bob Marley or Lady Gaga, or in your office cubicle, right by the pictures tacked onto your cork board. Help make this happen. Take one minute to sign the Korematsu Day petition today. Imagine what we can do when more students grow up knowing Fred Korematsu's story.

Ling Woo Liu is the director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education. Before joining the Institute, she spent 10 years as a multimedia journalist, most recently as a staff reporter for TIME magazine in Hong Kong. (Photo: Peter Lemieux)