by Kristen Growney Yamamoto, GLIDE’s Co-Executive Director
“If you have a feeling that something is wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up.” Fred Korematsu
Today, January 30th is Korematsu Day, a holiday honoring Fred Korematsu, an American hero who stood up for civil rights even when he was punished for it. As a young man, he protested the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and was arrested. While imprisoned, he sued the government to acknowledge their mistake and to protect his civil rights as an American. When the Supreme Court ruled against him, saying it is legal to imprison Japanese Americans because of their ancestry, he still did not give up. For forty years, he continued to speak up. With an amazing team of lawyers from San Francisco at his side including from Dale Minami, Lorraine Bannai, Edward M. Chen, Dennis Hayashi, Peter Irons, Karen Kai, Leigh-Ann Miyasato, Robert Rusky, Donald Tamaki, and Eric Yamamoto in 1983, his conviction was overturned and the government admitted its mistake.
My father-in-law turns 90 years old in a few days. He is a Sansei, a third generation Japanese American and he, along with his family, spent several years of his childhood imprisoned in Tule Lake Camp in Northern California. When I see old photographs of children from the Tule Lake Camp, I can’t bear to look close, lest it be my children’s grandparents, aunts, uncles. I want my children and their friends to understand the story of Mr. Korematsu as the story of an ordinary citizen who stood up to injustice in the wake of great criticism.
I taught a lesson to my daughter’s class this morning and we talked about standing up, and how hard it is, especially when privilege is granted to those who are not being discriminated against. We did a simple exercise of separating the kids with blue sneakers from the rest, and granting extra recess to those who were not wearing blue sneakers. Some wanted the extra recess and left the ‘blue sneakers’ behind. Those who got the extra time felt happy and lucky. Yet after a while, the class started to coalesce around it not being fair. It takes a brave person to speak up, and we all have the opportunity, every day, to stand up for what is right.
This afternoon, I shared the same lesson with Paul Chilvers’ 4th- 5th grade classroom at GLIDE’s Family, Youth and Childcare Center (FYCC). We did a simple exercise of separating the kids with an S in their first name from the rest of the classroom, and following the lesson shared an afternoon snack of potato chips with those without an S in their first name. The kids without the chips felt left out, the kids who were eating their chips also felt the injustice of the situation. Slowly, both groups realized they had the ability to change the situation, and they spoke up for what they felt was right. The youth with chips stood in solidarity with the youth without chips, and together, demanded all students be treated equal. In the end, it was a potato chip party for all.
We celebrate the legacy of Fred Korematsu, his story and struggle for justice continues to be an inspiration and great lesson for all.