Fred Korematsu and the
Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1998
Credit: Photo by Shirley Nakao,
Courtesy of the Korematsu Institute
A Chair is bestowed only upon the most outstanding law school faculty members. It is a special honor reflecting pre-eminence in the profession. The title recognizes that a tenured law professor has achieved an exceptional national or international reputation for excellence in scholarship and teaching. It also reflects an exemplary history of inspiring students and a long-standing commitment to community service.
A Chair supports a professor's ability to:
A Chair in Law and Social Justice signals that the professor has distinguished herself or himself locally, nationally and internationally through outstanding contributions to justice for all people and societies. It reflects a demonstrated and continuing commitment to social justice principles of equality, self-determination and fairness and to civil and human rights.
Fred T. Korematsu dedicated his adult life to social justice and was a lifelong advocate for government accountability. He stood tall against fierce discrimination and challenged the U.S.'s World War II mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, helping spark U.S. redress for former internees and setting a global precedent for repairing the persisting damage of historic injustice.
Linking Korematsu to the Chair in Law and Social Justice broadens and extends his remarkable legacy. It promises that his courage, insight and persistence will be carried into the future by the selected professor through her or his scholarly speaking and writing, teaching and inspiring students and service to communities struggling for justice locally, nationally and internationally.
For these reasons, the Korematsu family has graciously consented to the William S. Richardson School of Law’s use of the Korematsu name for the Chair: The Fred T. Korematsu Chair in Law and Social Justice.
"During World War II, Fred Korematsu stood up, nearly alone, to try to make our Constitution mean what it says – equality under law – even in the face of withering attacks.
In the 1980s he stood again to rectify the injustice not just for Japanese Americans, but for all of us to assure that the government will be called to account for its abuses of power.
In the early 2000s he continued to stand strong, this time against post-9/11 religious and racial civil and human rights transgressions."
Professor Eric K. Yamamoto
In 1998 Fred Korematsu received the highest U.S. Civilian Honor – the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Presenting him with the medal in 1998, President Clinton proclaimed, "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, today we add the name of Fred Korematsu."
President Clinton said that Parks and Korematsu "stand as beacons for justice for America" – Parks for her courage in refusing to sit at the back of the bus and triggering the African American civil rights movement, and Korematsu for challenging the U.S.’s World War II mass incarceration of Japanese Americans and for his lifelong advocacy for government accountability and equal justice for all.
During World War II, the U.S. government imprisoned for years in desolate barbed wired "camps" 120,000 innocent persons of Japanese ancestry, most American citizens, without charges or trial. They lost their homes, businesses and freedom. The President and military asserted that Japanese American disloyalty justified the politically popular racial scapegoating and mass incarceration.
Korematsu was among the few who refused. "We didn’t do anything wrong." He challenged the "racial exclusion" all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944, and lost, even though dissenting justices characterized the government as "falling into the ugly abyss of racism" and the decision as a "loaded weapon" aimed at American citizens. Japanese Americans lived with the stigma of disloyalty, and the American people lived with the prospect of unchecked government civil liberties abuses during times of distress.
After receiving the Medal of Freedom, Korematsu carried his message to classrooms of students, the next generation of justice seekers. "You have to stay on your toes and be strong. That’s what I want all of you…to do. Be strong and do what is right.
But Korematsu persevered "so that this would not happen again, to anyone." He re-opened his case in 1983 through an extraordinary writ of coram nobis. Legal researchers had recently discovered a cache of secret World War II government documents that showed that officials at the highest levels of the Military and War and Justice Departments knew there had been no "military necessity" for the racial internment and that officials had fabricated, destroyed and suppressed key evidence in presenting "intentional falsehoods" to the Supreme Court in 1944.
This time Korematsu won. The federal court swept away the false national security factual underpinnings of the original decision and announced that Korematsu v. U.S. now stands for the need for government accountability for its gross civil liberties abuses under the false mantle of national security. The coram nobis decision in 1984, along with similar Hirabayshi and Yasui cases, provided the legal lynchpin for the 1988 Civil Liberties Act’s presidential apology and reparation – redress by the U.S. that served as a catalyst for reparatory justice initiatives worldwide.
With clarity and humility, Korematsu continued to speak out about national security scapegoating and the need for government accountability for civil liberties violations. After 9/11 he warned against vilifying Arabs and Muslims in the U.S., and he submitted amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court about falsely justified detentions in Guantánamo Bay. After receiving the Medal of Freedom, Korematsu carried his message to classrooms of students, the next generation of justice seekers. "You have to stay on your toes and be strong. That’s what I want all of you…to do. Be strong and do what is right."
Through the wonderful efforts of Korematsu’s daughter Karen, schools now bear his name, as do an academic center and civil rights institute, and in 2011, California designated January 30th "Fred Korematsu Day" – encouraging us all to "stand for justice."
Now, with support, there will be a Law and Social Justice Chair in the name of Fred Korematsu.
To learn more about the Fred T. Korematsu Chair in Law and Social Justice, please contact: