In 1998, Fred Korematsu was a fragile reed of a man. But in the East Room of the White House, the septuagenarian stood up straight and tall as he heard President Clinton say, "Plessy, Brown, Parks ... to that distinguished list, today we add the name of Fred Korematsu."
Mr. Korematsu, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for courageously defying military orders calling for the World War II removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, died of respiratory failure Wednesday in San Rafael. He was 86.
Mr. Korematsu's death marks a milestone in the history of American civil liberties. By his simple act of defiance in 1942, for which he was arrested and convicted, the lifelong Bay Area resident became an icon of social justice, not just in his own Japanese American community, but beyond.
"Fred taught us that dissent is sometimes the most patriotic act you can undertake to preserve constitutional rights," said Dale Minami, a San Francisco attorney who helped overturn Mr. Korematsu's conviction. The reversal followed a 1983 federal court ruling that found the internment of 120, 000 people of Japanese ancestry to have been an action based on "unsubstantiated facts, distortions," and racism.
"Fred was a man of quiet bravery -- he wasn't bombastic -- but he really had a deep-seated conviction that the whole internment was a terrible blot on American history," said Peter Irons, a retired UC San Diego professor of political science who found secret Justice Department documents that reopened the Korematsu case.
Mr. Korematsu, born in Oakland in 1919, was a nisei, or second-generation Japanese American. On Dec. 7, 1941, Mr. Korematsu was a 22-year-old welder in San Leandro. Like all West Coast Japanese, the Korematsus were ordered in early 1942 to assembly centers and later incarcerated in camps. But Mr. Korematsu refused to go.
Planning to move to Nevada, he assumed another identity and even had plastic surgery, but was arrested in San Leandro and jailed. Aided by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, Mr. Korematsu challenged the exclusion orders in 1942.
The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction by a 6-3 vote in 1944, ruling that military necessity justified the orders. His was one of a handful of legal challenges by Japanese Americans to military orders. But it was Mr. Korematsu's case that became the most well-known -- and is studied today by every law student in America.
Viewed by many constitutional scholars as one of the high court's worst mistakes, the 1944 ruling in Korematsu vs. United States drew stinging dissent from Justice Robert Jackson, who wrote that the "Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination. ... The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon. ..."
Mr. Korematsu's conviction dogged him, making it hard to support his wife and two children. Years later, when Irons came to him with vital documents denying that Japanese Americans were a threat during the war, he reopened his case with the help of a pro-bono team of young, mostly Japanese American lawyers.
U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel threw out the conviction and called the case a "constant caution that in times of war or declared military necessity, our institutions must be vigilant in protecting our constitutional guarantees."
Through it all, say those who knew him, Mr. Korematsu never gave up seeking his rights.
"Fred was an ordinary American with extraordinary courage," said Irons.
Mr. Korematsu is survived by his wife, Kathryn of San Leandro; daughter, Karen Korematsu-Haigh of San Rafael and son, Ken Korematsu of San Francisco.
A memorial service will be held on April 16 at 1:30 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 2619 Broadway at 27th Street, in Oakland.
Godspeed, Fred. I pray I show the guts you showed when my turn comes. So should we all.