Two months after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt authorized Executive Order 9066. It labeled 120,000 Japanese Americans as national threats and forced them into internment camps, instantly crushing their freedom. Among these oppressed people, Fred Korematsu−a young Japanese American−resisted this violation of his rights with a lawsuit against the United States. His case was then brought to the Supreme Court, where he lost. Later, Korematsu stated “Every day, we pledged to the flag, 'with liberty and justice for all.’ Yet… I was branded as an alien when I was American. If you have the feeling that something is wrong, don't be afraid to speak up.” Eventually becoming a civil liberties icon, Fred Korematsu and his story have enormously influenced my ethical decisions and efforts to make a difference as a citizen.
My name is Claire Cao. As a Chinese-American living in a predominantly white town, life hasn’t always been simple. I was the only Asian in my grade throughout elementary school, and I’ll never forget when someone asked, “Why does Claire look so weird?”
After that, I desperately tried to conform. Fred Korematsu’s advice to “speak up” against injustice just seemed too difficult.
Everything changed in July 2015, when I volunteered as a camp counselor. I watched as a Chinese American girl stood outside a sandbox full of children.
“You can’t play with us. You’re different!” the kids sneered.
She was being segregated for her appearance. I realized that her situation was no different than when Korematsu was isolated for being an “alien.” At that moment, his words flashed through my mind:
“If you have the feeling that something is wrong, don't be afraid to speak up.”
Typically, I would’ve avoided the situation. Yet the words “Speak up” encouraged me to approach the girl.
“A good person is one who does the right thing, but being different doesn’t make someone bad,” I smiled. “In the end, people are people. Why don’t you play with me?”
I led her to the sandbox, where the children grew silent. Shocked, they parted to allow us to enter.
Korematsu influenced me to make a moral decision for someone else that day and has taught me that choices that promote acceptance, respect, and understanding can make a difference. I realized that moral decisions should be based on what is right rather than what is safe or easy. And that day, I became determined to set aside my preexisting fears to speak up like Korematsu.
Since then, Korematsu’s courage has allowed me to realize it is my duty as a citizen to oppose injustice, defy stereotypes, defend my values, and condemn discrimination. I must demonstrate and inspire equality for all humanity to truly contribute to the democracy I live in. Although there is a long way to go in reaching some of this country’s ideals, Fred Korematsu’s story has inspired me to strive for a future where Americans truly have “liberty and justice for all” by taking every chance to speak up.