Celebrating and Preserving Our Civil Liberties

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday January 19, 2011 - 12:41:00 PM

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the first observance of the U.S. holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill establishing it in 1983, but the holiday took until January 20, 1986, to get going. The states took their own sweet time getting on board—it was not until 2000 that all 50 states recognized Martin Luther King Day as a real holiday. And even today in some benighted parts of the country people can be surly about it  

But around here, this year is the first in my memory where it really does seem to be a national holiday, to be everywhere acknowledged and celebrated, not only because of the life and achievements of Dr. King but increasingly as a tribute to the whole civil rights movement of the late 20th century and its amazing successes. Not, of course, that there’s not a lot still to be done, but once in a while it doesn’t hurt for victors to rest on their laurels before going on to new battles.  

And as I was out and about in Berkeley on Monday’s sunny holiday afternoon, joining cheerful crowds doing a bit of recreating on Fourth Street, I saw posters about another January civil rights holiday celebration. Since it’s brand new this year, it might take a while to be universally recognized, but let’s hope it doesn’t take 25 years. On January 30 (his birthday) the first official celebration of Fred Korematsu Day will take place.  

If the name seems familiar but the facts don’t, Fred Korematsu was the guy who refused to go along with the federal government’s round-up of Japanese-Americans during World War II. He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where he lost in 1944.  

But he didn’t give up—four decades later he filed suit to have his conviction overturned as a judicial error, and in 1983, the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California granted his petition and overturned his conviction on the basis of factual information having been withheld by the government. He devoted the rest of his life to educating Americans the need for protecting their own civil liberties and those of others.  

The Asian Law Caucus, who represented him in his suit, and his family have established the Korematsu Institute to continue this educational endeavor. They’re sponsoring a kickoff celebration of the Fred T. Korematsu Day for Civil Liberties and the Constitution (the full official title) at Wheeler Auditorium on the UC Berkeley Campus on Sunday from 2 to 5.  

This is the first national holiday to be named after an Asian American, but it’s not intended to be just a tribute to Asian achievement. Rather, the goal is to remind all of us that preserving our traditional liberties is everyone’s job. To that end, the keynote speaker on Sunday will be the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a veteran of African American struggles.  

After all these triumphs, what else is there that needs to be done? Quite a lot, it turns out. 

An obvious problem is the perennial human temptation to ethnic stereotyping: to suspect all members of a recognizable group of being guilty of crimes possibly attributable to some group members. All Moslems are not de facto terrorists, all Latinos are not de facto illegal immigrants and so on…. which should be obvious, but isn’t to many Americans. And even though Fred Korematsu’s conviction was reversed on factual grounds, some legal advocates still claim that the government may detain members of suspected groups on the basis of suspicion alone, despite habeas corpus, a theory fraught with peril.  

During World War II, many Americans sincerely believed that Japanese Americans were likely to be spies or saboteurs for their ancestral country, which could not have been farther from the truth. In this context I think of the Planet’s late and beloved landlord, Bob Sugimoto, who went from Watsonville to serve the United States in the Pacific as an intelligence specialist, listening to Japanese-language communications.  

Searching online for more information after hearing Bob’s stories about Watsonville, where members of my family later lived, I discovered a marvelous site created for a 2002 re-enactment of the wartime removal of the whole Nikkei (Japanese American) population of Watsonville. It includes generous tributes to the substantial number of local European American citizens who stood up for the internees (including the whole Mormon Church) and cared for their property while they were gone. It’s reassuring to know that even in the fearful days of the 1940s some Watsonville residents kept their values straight, and we should hope to do the same when other groups are threatened by stereotyping.  

Another more complex civil liberties question is the appropriate remedy for past injustice. In the case of Japanese Americans, the token gesture of paying each internee $20,000 as redress for injuries suffered was passed by Congress, but of course the financial damage done to many was much greater than this amount, and the emotional damage was incalculable.  

And what could compensate African Americans for the centuries of slavery which their ancestors endured? A few tens of thousands of dollars per person wouldn’t begin to suffice.  

This is the cue for the usual whingers to complain that their ancestors came after slavery ended or weren’t slaveholders themselves, but such people totally miss the point—whose specific individual ancestors did what, when, has nothing to do with it. The United States as a nation amassed its enormous wealth in significant part because of exploiting the labor of slaves, and even recent immigrants still benefit from the proceeds of this theft. And descendants of slaves still suffer from the deprivations of their grandparents. It should be the responsibility of the modern federal state, the current government of the United States, to attempt to make them whole again, though that may be a Herculean endeavor.  

[P.S. Check out the Wikipedia discussion of reparations for slavery, including its Talk page, to see some embarrassingly ignorant and unsupported grandstanding against the concept. Those fabled volunteer editors should clean this entry up, deleting the obvious Libertarian propaganda and the delusional raving of David Horowitz and sticking to citable facts and reasoned opinion identified as such.]