Fred Korematsu was as an ordinary young man who fought for social justice with extraordinary courage. His story, chronicled in “Fred Korematsu Speaks Up” is the first in the Fighting for Justice series that seeks to introduce readers to real-life heroes and heroines of social progress. We spoke to co-authors Stan Yogi and Laura Atkins about writing the book and its relevance today.
Stan Yogi says, “Fred Korematsu is one of my heroes. As a young man, he defied the government’s World War II orders forcing 120,000 Japanese Americans -including my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles -from the west coast into concentration camps only because they looked like the enemy.”
Japanese Americans and immigrants were targeted even though none of them had committed any crimes. “The government feared that Japanese immigrants and their American citizen children might be disloyal. Fred challenged this unfair discrimination all the way to the Supreme Court which, in an infamous decision, accepted the government’s contention of “military necessity” to imprison an ethnic group,” he elaborates.
Fred’s one-man fight
Even as he courageously stood up against discrimination, many in the Japanese American community, including his family, criticized him for defying the government, making him feel isolated and like an outsider in his own community.
“Nearly forty years after his Supreme Court loss, researchers discovered documents proving that, during the war, government attorneys intentionally suppressed evidence favorable to Japanese Americans and argued to the high court that Japanese Americans’ loyalty to the United States was suspect, even when they knew that was false.
A team of young mostly Japanese American attorneys provided Korematsu pro bono legal representation to reopen his case. Their hard work and the government’s feeble defense convinced a federal judge in 1983 to overturn Fred’s conviction,” says Yogi.
Parallels to today
Korematsu had dedicated the final decades of his life to ensure that others would not suffer the same injustices Japanese Americans endured during World War II. He spoke around the country reminding audiences of the fragility of our civil liberties in times of war and crisis.
After 9/11, his message became more important. In 2003, he lent the weight of his name, with its echoes of a time when the government imprisoned people for looking like the enemy, to legal briefs on behalf of prisoners, including American citizens being held without charges, representation, or trials.
Korematsu’s story has chilling parallels with the current Republican government’s immigration policies and Muslim ban. Yogi concurs. “His story is all the more important now with threats to Muslims, immigrants, refugees, communities of color and LGBT people. Kids need to know that we can organize and fight against injustice, just like Fred.”
Lessons from his story
Co-author Laura Atkins talks about writing in an age-appropriate way that would appeal to middle-graders to learn about Korematsu’s struggle, and the courage it took to stand up when others around him weren’t supportive.
“Our hope with Fred Korematsu Speaks Up is to also help readers think critically. We provide questions so that young readers can apply Fred’s experience to their own lives, such as “Have you ever been treated badly because of how you look or speak?” and “Have you ever disagreed with your family or friends about something important to you?” she explains.
She elucidates how Fred Korematsu’s personal story intersects with larger political and social justice issues, as the book includes information about historical laws against interracial marriage and larger movements for social justice. “Activism can come in many forms – including protest, taking legal action, creating art – and at the end, we try to give readers some tools for taking action themselves.
Hopefully, this can be part of a larger effort to provide children with tools to read, research and draw their own informed conclusions. We hope to empower them to speak up themselves, in whatever way feels best to them.”