How a 1944 Supreme Court Ruling on Internment Camps Led to a Reckoning
Just months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered 120,000 people of Japanese descent, most American citizens, rounded up and imprisoned in camps.
Some resisted, like 23-year-old Fred Korematsu, who hid from the authorities and even underwent surgery to change his appearance. “I didn’t feel guilty because I don’t think I did anything wrong,” Korematsu told an interviewer in 1984. “I felt I was an American citizen and I had just as many rights as anyone else.”
Korematsu was eventually arrested and convicted of violating the president’s order. He appealed, arguing that internment based on race was unconstitutional. But in 1944 the Supreme Court upheld his conviction, ruling that Roosevelt’s executive order was a valid wartime response to a national security threat.
“The core of the court’s decision was political, that they had to uphold the president during a time of war,” said Dale Minami, a civil rights lawyer whose own parents had been incarcerated in Arkansas during the war. “It affected me deeply about my sense of justice.”
After evidence was uncovered that claims of espionage were unfounded, Korematsu’s case was reopened, and a federal judge wiped the conviction from his record.
The Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed by President Ronald Reagan, gave surviving Japanese Americans reparations. But the ruling in Korematsu v. U.S. remained on the books, and was cited in a 2018 Supreme Court decision upholding President Trump’s orders banning travel to the United States by people from Muslim-majority countries.
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