Fred Korematsu: A Civil Rights Hero | Not in Our Town

Fred Korematsu: A Civil Rights Hero

Grade Level: 
Middle School (6-8)
High School (9-12)


"We are all Americans in this country."

—Fred Korematsu (1919-2005)

When Japanese-Americans were sent to camps during World War II, Fred Korematsu refused to go, saying, "I am an American." His 40-year fight became a symbol of equality and freedom. On January 30, 2011, California celebrated its first Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution marking the 69th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 that legalized the internment.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld charges against Korematsu in 1944 and it would take nearly 40 years for his charges to be formally overturned. Korematsu said, "It was a great victory for all Americans and all Asians in this country, that this will never happen again."

“In the long history of our country’s constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls: Plessy, Brown, Parks. To that distinguished list, today we add the name of Fred Korematsu,” said President Bill Clinton when he presented Korematsu with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, in 1998. Fred Korematsu Day is the first day named after an Asian-American in the history of the United States.

This lesson addresses the following Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) strategies. You can have students look for these issues and examine them in themselves.

  • Self-awareness: Fred Korematsu knew he was not a second class citizen and resisted policies that made him out to be one.
  • Self-management: Fred Korematsu organized a legal case appealing his internment.
  • Social awareness: Fred Korematsu experienced the results of systemic and legislative racial injustice in the internment camps along with other Japanese Americans
  • Relationship skills: Fred Korematsu enlisted the help of legal experts to win his case.
  • Responsible decision-making: Fred Korematsu resisted and spoke up with non-violent tactics in order to be heard.

1.  Prior to showing the video, briefly explain the primary themes of the video. Use some or all of the following questions (include at least one writing prompt):

  • What do you know about the Japanese internment camps in America? If you don’t know about them, how can you find out?
  • nstitutional racism describes any kind of system of inequality based on race. It can occur in institutions such as public government bodies, private business corporations, and universities. Can you think of any examples? Give both subtle and extreme examples.
  • How would you define courage? Provide examples from your personal life.

2.  After watching the video, engage students in a dialogue about the film using some or all of the following questions (include at least one writing prompt) :

  • What reasons did the US government have for segregating Japanese Americans from the rest of society? What is your opinion of these reasons?
  • What do you think non-Japanese Americans thought of the internments?
  • What could you have done to help Fred during the time of his internment?
  • Have you ever experienced or observed authority figures or organizations abuse their power? What did you do?

Extension Activities

  1. Research the internment of Japanese Americans. Why did it occur? What were some of the consequences?
  2. Peter Irons was a civil rights activist and a lawyer who helped re-open some of the internment cases,  including Fred Korematsu’s case. Read about the Korematsu vs. the United States case and share some significant aspects of the case. After your research do a quick-write about your reaction to the policies and actions of the government and the legal system. What parallels do you see in our society today?
  3. Make a list of individuals and groups you believe have been affected by racial prejudice. Think as broadly as possible. How has prejudice affected you and your family? What are some actions that will reduce prejudice?



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