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A civil rights hero gets his day

Reporting from Hayward, Calif.

Twenty-nine eager fifth-grade faces stare up at Ines Trinh between recess and lunch one day last week. The children have been studying stories about perseverance in the face of pain; "Give It All You've Got," the lesson's catchy theme, is printed in big letters on a poster in Room 21.

The teacher has just read her young students at Lorenzo Manor Elementary School a book called "The Bracelet." It's the story of Emi, a Berkeley second-grader sent to an internment camp during World War II just because she was Japanese American. New vocabulary words: "Injustice." "Inequality."

And finally, "resist." Because fictional Emi's story is followed by the true tale of Fred Korematsu, a young man who refused to be rounded up and hauled away because of his heritage. Who was arrested. Who fought the government and lost. And finally, 40 years later, who fought the government and won.

"Raise your hand if you've ever seen or felt like something was not right," Trinh asks her students. More than a dozen hands shoot up. "Now, put your hand up if you actually did something about it."

There are knitted brows, furtive glances and a long pause. Trinh nods, sympathetic. This is, after all, a lesson on courage, on one of history's tragic chapters, an introduction to a brand-new hero.

And, along with it, a new holiday.

Korematsu, a Medal of Freedom recipient who died in 2005, would have turned 92 on Sunday. Instead, schools throughout the state are celebrating the first Fred T. Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution. Signed into law last September by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, it is believed to be the first statewide holiday honoring an Asian American anywhere in the country. A nascent effort is underway for a federal Korematsu Day.

At the heart of this month's celebrations is the idea of resilience, that a great country can correct its mistakes and an ordinary man can make a difference.

Or as Trinh tells her class: "I see things sometimes that are not right, but I don't always have the courage to do something about it. When we think about heroes, people like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Fred Korematsu, these are people who actually spoke up and did something about it."

****

Korematsu, then 22, was with his girlfriend in the hills above San Francisco Bay when the music on his car radio stopped and his world changed. The Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor.

He had already faced discrimination because of his ancestry, a union that kicked him out, restaurants that wouldn't serve him, barbers who wouldn't cut his hair. He'd tried to enlist twice but was turned away by a military that changed his draft status to "4C" — enemy alien — even though he had been born and raised in Oakland.

Four months after Pearl Harbor, Korematsu's family was sent to Tanforan Racetrack, where they awaited transfer to an internment camp. Korematsu refused to go.

Instead, he changed his name to Clyde Sarah, got minor plastic surgery on his eyes so he wouldn't look so Japanese, said he was of Spanish and Hawaiian descent. He and his girlfriend, who was white, would move to Nevada, he figured, outside of the coastal military zone where Japanese residents were banned. They would be safe.

He was, after all, an American citizen, and "I didn't think the government would go as far as to include American citizens to be interned without a hearing," he recounted in a 2000 documentary.

But on May 30, 1942, Korematsu was arrested on a street corner in San Leandro and sent to jail in San Francisco. He was found guilty of violating military orders and sent to Tanforan to await internment, and he ended up at a camp in Utah.

"The horse stalls that we stayed in were made for horses, not human beings," he would tell a judge nearly 40 years later, describing the "shame" and "embarrassment" of "all Japanese American citizens who were escorted to concentration camps."

With the help of the Northern California ACLU, Korematsu appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court — and lost, 6 to 3, in 1944. The government argued that internment was not based on racism and that the Army had proof that Japanese residents were signaling enemy ships and prone to disloyalty.

But in an angry dissent, Justice Robert Jackson said the government's evidence was lacking and declared that "the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination."

****

Karen Korematsu was sitting in class at San Lorenzo High School listening to her friend Maya Okada give a book report. It was 1967, and they were juniors at the East Bay campus, a sprawling 2,500-student school with so few Japanese Americans you could count them on one hand.

Maya "got up in class and was talking about the Japanese American concentration camps and everyone being put into these camps, and then she mentioned this famous Supreme Court case, Korematsu vs. the United States," recounts Karen, now 60. "I got 35 pairs of eyes looking at me."

After class, the perplexed girl asked her friend what she'd been talking about. "I thought you knew," Maya responded. "I think this is about your father." When Karen got home that afternoon, she confronted her mother. Maya had been right.

Her father, by then a structural draftsman, had never told his children about the internment camps and the court cases. With a conviction on his record — misdemeanor or no — he had trouble getting work. He never shook the shame.

"There was a whole community that went through this shameful experience, and all they wanted to do was prove they were loyal Americans and get on with their lives," Karen said. "He felt that weight of losing that case on his shoulders all those years."

What Karen also didn't know was that her father had never given up hope of somehow clearing his name.

He would get that chance when he was 63.

****

Peter Irons, historian and lawyer, decided in 1981 to write a book about three cases that stemmed from Japanese internment and went to the Supreme Court. Korematsu's was the most famous.

Irons had planned a "standard academic book," he said recently, which would explain how the Supreme Court "made such terrible decisions in this case, especially when so many of the justices were so liberal."

After he found the Department of Justice records on the cases, the first document he looked at, he said, was "the smoking gun."

To prosecute Korematsu, Irons said, the Department of Justice had relied upon a report by Gen. John DeWitt, who had carried out the evacuation of Japanese residents in big swaths of the West. It declared that they "had committed acts of espionage and sabotage."

But Edward Ennis, a Justice Department lawyer, was suspicious and contacted the FBI, the Federal Communications Commission and military intelligence. They told him that there was no evidence of such acts. Ennis laid it all out in a memo, which was ignored.

Until Irons found it.

With that memo and another document discovered by researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, Irons contacted San Francisco lawyer Dale Minami, co-founder of the Asian Law Caucus. They put together a team of young, largely sansei attorneys and offered to represent Korematsu for free.

At one point, Department of Justice lawyers offered Korematsu a pardon if he would drop his suit against the government.

"It meant that you admit the guilt of your actions, but we'll remove any penalties," Minami said. The Korematsus said, "'We're not going to take a pardon from the government. We should be the ones pardoning the government.' "

On Nov. 10, 1983, in front of federal court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, Minami argued that Korematsu's case before the Supreme Court had been based on fraud and racism.

Then Korematsu spoke. A quiet, humble man, he picked his words well.

"According to the Supreme Court decision regarding my case," he told Patel, "being an American citizen was not enough. They say you have to look like one; otherwise they say you can't tell the difference between a loyal and a disloyal American.

"I thought that this decision was wrong, and I still feel that way," he continued. "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."

The 1944 Supreme Court decision, though discredited, still stands, but Patel overturned Korematsu's conviction that very day.

Korematsu spent his final years as a civil rights activist, his main goal to teach and remind. Not long after his death, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Lillian Y. Lim began worrying that his legacy "was disappearing in our national conscience."

So she created a committee, enlisted her law students and pushed for a holiday. Co-sponsored by Assemblymen Warren Furutani (D-Gardena) and Marty Block (D-San Diego), it passed the state Legislature unanimously.

****

In a DVD that Trinh shows her class this day, Korematsu talked about the pain of internment, about how he felt like "a prisoner of war in his own country," how stunned he was to lose the Supreme Court case and how equally dumbfounded he was to have his record cleared.

Near the end of class discussion, Joseph Rodriguez raises his hand. Something has been bothering him.

"Why didn't Fred Korematsu just work something out with the government?"

"Sometimes the government doesn't like to listen," Trinh says. "Fred Korematsu made the government listen."

maria.laganga@latimes.com

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