Fred Korematsu, the Oakland draftsman who unsuccessfully challenged the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II, died yesterday of a respiratory ailment at age 86. To many Japanese-Americans and other civil libertarians, Korematsu was a civil rights icon who risked not only the legal wrath of his own government, but the scorn of his own people when in 1944 he challenged the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans.
The Supreme Court at the time found the internship justified on national security grounds, but perhaps only the Court's Dred Scott decision has come under as much historical criticism as Korematsu.
Korematsu's case paved the way for the landmark 1988 Civil Liberties Act, when the U.S. government acknowledged that the detention of Japanese-Americans was wrong, and apologized. In 1998, President Clinton awarded Korematsu with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civil honor.
Eric Muller of Is That Legal writes:
Fred Korematsu ... was a civil rights icon of the 20th century, and deservedly so. My wife and I had dinner with him last November, just after what now turns out to be his last public address. His speech that day was witty, moving, humble, noble--just as he himself was.
It was a privilege to know Fred Korematsu. Any life that brings to the world even a fraction of the inspiration that Fred Korematsu's life brought to us all is a life well lived.