The struggle for civil liberties has long been carried by ordinary citizens like Fred Korematsu

Do you know who Fred Korematsu is? Tomorrow is his birthday and your children will likely learn about him in school.

Twenty years ago President Clinton said, “In the long history of our country’s constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls: Plessy, Brown. Parks. To that distinguished list, we add the name of Fred Korematsu.”

In 1942, Fred Korematsu was one of a few individuals who refused to comply with the military orders which implemented the forced removal of over 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry from their homes on the West Coast and their internment in camps for the duration of World War II.

Mr. Korematsu believed the military orders violated his basic rights and freedoms as an American under the U.S. Constitution. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, he chose to challenge the constitutionality of his arrest and conviction for violating the military orders.

In December 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Mr. Korematsu’s challenge, effectively upholding the constitutionality of the internment of an entire ethnic community without charges of any crime or disloyal act, without legal representation, and without trial or conviction, on the grounds that the responsible military commander had a reasonable basis to conclude that the West Coast Japanese American communities posed a threat to national security.

It turns out the Japanese American communities did not pose any military or security threat to the United States. After the war, all intelligence reports revealed that none of the thousands of reports and rumors of Japanese American espionage or sabotage was ever validated. No acts of espionage or sabotage by Japanese Americans ever occurred.

Almost 40 years after the Supreme Court’s decision, Mr. Korematsu filed a petition on the grounds that the Supreme Court decision was based on fraudulent claims and suppression of intelligence. The decision on Mr. Korematsu’s petition influenced the U.S. government’s passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The San Francisco federal court judge who heard the case, Honorable Patel, granted his petition and cautioned against using the Supreme Court’s decision as precedent.

Judge Patel said “It stands as a caution that in times of international hostility and antagonisms, our institutions, legislative, executive and judicial, must be prepared to exercise their authority to protect all citizens from the petty fears and prejudices that are so easily aroused.”

One of the many things I love about being an educator is this: I too get hundreds of learning opportunities every day. I hope I was able to teach you something new about an important person in American history.

The History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools states that the history curriculum at each grade level relating to community, state, region, nation and the world must reflect and integrate the experiences of men and women of different racial, religious and ethnic groups.

In SFUSD, we encourage students to learn from our past and apply those lessons to today. But the reason I’m talking about Mr. Koramatsu today isn’t just because tomorrow is Fred T. Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties, it’s also because the reasons we honor his legacy are more relevant than ever.

Though I continue to learn more about Mr. Koramatsu, I learned this a long time ago: the struggle for civil liberties has often been inspired by ordinary Americans who have had the courage to stand up and fight for their Constitutional rights.

Vincent Matthews is superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District.

Vincent Matthews
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Vincent Matthews

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