A Day Dedicated to Fighting Injustice Resonates as an Important Legacy at the Law School

June 24, 2013

Governor Neil Ambercrombie and Karen Korematsu, of the Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education, celebrate the creation of "Civil Rights and the Constitution Day."

Struggles and successes in fighting for social justice—inspired by the World War II detention experience of Japanese Americans—have now been recognized in Hawai‘i with a new statewide day of observance.

Each year January 30 will be recognized as “Civil Liberties and the Constitution Day.” This has particular significance for the William S. Richardson School of Law and it builds directly on the work of Prof. Eric Yamamoto, an internationally renowned legal scholar and advocate for reparation and social justice.

On June 7th, Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed Act 94 into law thereby making  “Civil Liberties and the Constitution Day” official. Governor Abercrombie noted that this annual day of observance “will serve to recognize and remind us of the courage of those who remained committed to freedom, even when their own civil liberties and rights were being challenged.”

Building on work done by individuals and groups who have asserted and defended civil rights, “Civil Liberties and the Constitution Day” will highlight the continuing need for access to justice, even as it celebrates significant victories in civil rights advocacy and legislation.

Those achievements include the work of several members of the faculty at the University of Hawai‘i's William S. Richardson School of Law, including in particular the contributions of Professor Yamamoto, who last year was named the inaugural Fred T. Korematsu Professor of Law and Social Justice. As a young attorney in the 1980s, Yamamoto was deeply involved in helping Korematsu successfully challenge the constitutionality of his imprisonment for not complying with government-enforced internment during World War II. January 30th is Korematsu’s birthday, and the date was chosen to honor his legacy.

As the newly-named Fred T. Korematsu Professor of Law and Social Justice, Yamamoto has a special mandate “to train promising law students as collaborators on academic and community-based social justice projects” and “to engage social justice scholars and practitioners locally, nationally, and internationally.”

The professorship was supported by the Korematsu family and the San Francisco-based Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education, headed by Fred Korematsu’s daughter, Karen Korematsu, to support ground-breaking work in human rights and social justice. It was launched with a generous leadership gift from former internees Sidney and Minnie Kosasa, founders of the ABC Stores in Hawai‘i.

Although “Civil Liberties and the Constitution Day” recognizes the plight of any person or group who rightfully seeks redress for civil rights abuses, its creation was inspired particularly by the protracted legal fight of Japanese Americans to obtain a government apology, legal justice, and reparations for their forced internment during World War II, according to Law School Dean Avi Soifer.

Soifer added, “It is so wonderfully appropriate—particularly given the close connection between the Korematsu family, Professor Yamamoto, and our Law School—that Hawai’i has chosen to commemorate Fred Korematsu and to celebrate him as a broader model for advocacy on behalf of civil rights and civil liberties.”

Executive Order 9066, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942 initiated the removal and internment of citizens and foreign nationals deemed to be harmful to national security. Coming in the wake of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, this order  focused on Japanese Americans living on the West Coast and in Hawai‘i. As many as 110,000 people were placed in internment camps during the war.

Resistance to Executive Order 9066 began when Japanese Americans who evaded internment were arrested and convicted for disobeying government orders. Attempts to appeal their convictions got nowhere until they were overturned in the 1980s. 

Korematsu’s resistance to detention, and his subsequent challenge to his conviction,  underscored the ongoing efforts of this country's civil rights movement in the latter half of the twentieth century. His final triumph over injustice 40 years after World War II  ended was officially recognized by the federal government when Korematsu was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the nation's highest civilian honor—in 1998.

In 2012 the Hawai‘i State Legislature passed a bill declaring January 30th as Fred Korematsu Day to commemorate Korematsu's victory in overturning his conviction, as well as his fight to reverse the Supreme Court's decision upholding Executive Order 9066. By expanding the day’s purview to honor all advocates of civil liberties and the Constitution's protections, the State can now recognize others who have walked the same path as Korematsu.

Other Japanese Americans who challenged Executive Order 9066  also were singled out as inspirations for Act 94.  They include: Gordon Hirabayashi, Min Yasui, and Mitsuye Endo, all of whom engaged in lengthy legal battles to reverse their convictions for noncompliance with the internment law, often with little success.

Establishing this new day of observance is the final step for Senate Bill 856, which the 2013 State Legislature passed unanimously.  It was supported by a broad coalition of local and national civil liberties groups and cultural institutions, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities, Japanese American Citizens League, Japanese Chamber of Commerce, Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education, Hawai’i Civil Rights Commission, and the William S. Richardson School of Law.