On June 26, as part of its decision to uphold the Donald Trump administration’s restrictions on travel to the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its infamous 1944 decision in Korematsu v. United States supporting the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
“Korematsu was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “and — to be clear — ‘has no place in law under the constitution.’”
Both the administration’s travel restrictions upheld by the majority of black-robed justices and the more than 70-year-old Korematsu decision upholding President Franklin Roosevelt’s actions to imprison all Japanese-Americans in concentration camps were justified in the name of “national security.” The ruling class routinely speaks of a classless “national security” to attack political rights at home and to justify U.S. imperialist war moves abroad. There is no common “national security” in our class-divided society.
So why was Korematsu overturned? Under the impact of the popular victory over Jim Crow segregation in the South led by Black workers, Japanese-Americans organized a redress movement in the 1970s to fight for recognition of the injustice suffered by those put in concentration camps during World War II. They won wide support. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1988, officially apologizing to Japanese-Americans and providing reparations of $20,000 to each of the 56,000 survivors of the camps.
The Supreme Court decisions justifying the concentration camps have become widely discredited, earning comparison with the Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery.
Fred Korematsu was a 23-year-old welder working in the San Francisco shipyards in 1942 when Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing incarceration of all 120,000 Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. Their only “crime” was their Japanese ancestry. Ten concentration camps were built in remote deserts or swamps surrounded by barbed wire to hold them, guarded by soldiers with machine guns.
Korematsu refused to report. He was arrested and convicted of a felony. Two other Japanese-Americans, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minori Yasui, lost legal challenges against being forced into the camps.
Under the impact of the growing movement for redress of racist inequities visited on Japanese-Americans, the courts were forced to reopen these cases and the convictions were overturned in the 1980s.