When President Donald Trump signed a sweeping executive order Friday barring Syrian refugees from entering the United States and banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, protests erupted across the nation. Americans browsing the internet Monday would have seen even the search engine Google seemingly allude to the executive order, choosing to feature the Japanese-American civil rights activist Fred Korematsu in its Google Doodle on what would have been his 98th birthday.
Korematsu’s name became synonymous with resisting another executive order from the Oval Office 75 years ago: one signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to imprison more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent after the outbreak of World War II. Korematsu, an American citizen who had tried to enlist in the military, would fight the order that created the Japanese internment camps all the way to the Supreme Court — and lose.
Korematsu was born in Oakland in 1919, to parents who had immigrated from Japan 14 years earlier. Kakusaburo Korematsu and his wife Kotsui Aoki worked at a flower nursery while raising their four sons, of whom Korematsu was their third. Korematsu had a typical American childhood: He went to public schools, played tennis and joined the swimming team, and even tried to sign up for the Navy before he was rejected for medical reasons.
After high school, he went to work as a welder for a local shipyard, but lost his job after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The next day, Congress declared war on Japan — a country Korematsu had never known, but whose actions would soon shape the course of his life.
Two months later, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered the Secretary of War to send Americans of Japanese, German and Italian descent to internment camps, ostensibly for “military reasons” to secure the West Coast from attack. More than 115,000 people of Japanese descent — two-thirds of whom were American citizens — would report to the camps, including Korematsu’s family. But Korematsu refused to join them, hoping to stay out of the camps with his Italian-American girlfriend.
He went to extreme measures to avoid internment, undergoing eyelid surgery to disguise his Asian features and claiming he was Spanish and Hawaiian. The subterfuge failed, and he was arrested at the end of May for avoiding the evacuation order.
Korematsu was promptly convicted and sent to a camp, but he fought and appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court in 1944. According to a biography of his case, Korematsu thought “people should have a fair trial and a chance to defend their loyalty at court in a democratic way, because in this situation, people were placed in imprisonment without any fair trial.”
In a 6-3 decision, the high court ruled against him in Korematsu v. United States, upholding a provision of Roosevelt’s executive order as constitutional. In the court’s decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote that “Korematsu was not excluded from the Military Area because of hostility to him or his race. He was excluded because we are at war with the Japanese Empire.”
But history was kind to Korematsu in the years after his internment. After he was released from his internment camp in 1945, he moved to Utah, then Michigan. He married and had two children, who he shielded from knowledge of his Supreme Court case for much of their childhood.
America’s understanding of the internment camps also changed with hindsight — in 1976, President Gerald Ford formally apologized for Roosevelt’s executive order and signed a proclamation ending it, and President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988 authorizing $20,000 in compensation for each still-living victim who had gone through the internment camps.
Korematsu’s personal conviction for violating the evacuation order was also vacated in 1983, with a federal judge ruling that his Supreme Court case was a “caution that in times of distress the shield of military necessity and national security must not be used to protect governmental actions from close scrutiny and accountability.”
Korematsu was even personally honored by President Bill Clinton in 1998 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his pursuit of constitutional liberty, and Clinton described Korematsu alongside the “distinguished list” of other civil rights activists including Rosa Parks and Oliver Brown, of the case Brown v. Board of Education.
Korematsu died in 2005, aged 86. But his personal legacy remained at odds with his judicial loss, which lawyer Peter Irons said Korematsu “felt responsible” for decades. Korematsu v. United States technically remains on the books though the decision has been nearly universally criticized. Several justices on the current court have said such a decision would “never again survive scrutiny,” according to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Even the late Justice Antonin Scalia called the decision “wrong,” though he acknowledged, “I would not be surprised to see it happen again—in time of war. It’s no justification but it is the reality.”
Indeed, Korematsu’s case recently resurfaced as possible judicial precedent — for another of Trump’s proposed policies. Shortly after the presidential election, Carl Higbie, who ran a pro-Trump PAC, used the Korematsu case as justification for a Muslim registry that the now-president had suggested during his campaign.
“We did it during World War II with Japanese, which, you know, call it what you will,” he said in an interview with Megyn Kelly in November, during a heated exchange. “ I’m just saying there is precedent for it.”
“You can’t be citing Japanese internment camps as precedent for anything the president-elect is gonna do,” Kelly argued back at the time.
“Look, the president needs to protect America first,” Higbie said. “If that means having people that are not protected under our Constitution have some sort of registry so we can understand, until we can identify the true threat and where it’s coming from, I support it.”