by Madhavi Sunder
This is a story about an effort I was privileged to participate in to use the opportunity of naming a new elementary school in Davis, California, as a teaching moment. The passage of nearly a decade since the original naming has demonstrated that the name the Davis community chose has proven meaningful.
In 2005 I was tapped by the Davis School Board to serve on a committee to name the newest elementary school in my East Davis neighborhood of Mace Ranch. I am a professor of law at UC Davis, where I started teaching in 1999. At that time I did not yet have children in the Davis public schools—my daughter was a toddler and I was pregnant with my son. But I was excited about the prospect about participating in the important civic activity of naming one of our public schools. Davis is a community that takes its names seriously. The names of our public schools, roads, and parks reflect our community’s shared values and history. Consider a few school names, for example: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Da Vinci, Cesar Chavez, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Under Davis School Board rules, schools must be named after a deceased individual, not a living person. Earlier that same year, the Asian American civil rights hero, Fred Korematsu, had died. Korematsu was a California native who challenged the validity of President Roosevelt’s executive order mandating the internment of all Japanese Americans on the West Coast after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In all, some 120,000 men, women and children were rounded up from their homes and sent to live in far away and desolate internment camps for years during the war. Many lost their homes, businesses, and possessions purely because of the color of their skin. Few at the time protested. But Korematsu, an ordinary young man in his early 20s, had the courage to challenge the internment. First, he refused to go to the camp. Later, after being arrested and sent to the Topaz internment camp in Utah, he challenged the constitutionality of these actions in court. Korematsu’s case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. While he lost before the Supreme Court during World War II, he reopened his case decades later and was vindicated in court. His heroism paved the way for the reparations movement for Japanese American internees decades later. In 1998 Korematsu was awarded the President Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. He is often referred to as the “Asian American Rosa Parks”—an ordinary person who had the courage to speak up when he saw something was wrong.
I learned a great deal about Davis and our community’s history while leading the effort to name the new school after Korematsu in the summer and fall of 2005. Some questioned naming the school after Korematsu because they wanted the name to have a local connection. Korematsu had been born in Oakland, which was close, but he was not homegrown.
But then the people – and the stories – started flowing in. Myriad Davis citizens began to come forward to powerfully and emotionally recount how the Japanese internment had affected them personally. Some 300 Davis residents signed a petition supporting the naming of the school after Korematsu.
On the evening of August 2, 2005, our committee heard live testimony from prominent Davis residents of their own sad histories living in the internment camps.
- Alice Nishi, the first Asian American to serve on the Davis School Board and at the time a 37-year Davis resident, spoke of her years as an internee;
- Grace Noda told of her family’s forced separation: her father was sent to one camp, her mother to another, and she and her four sisters to a third. Her youngest sister graduated from high school in “camp”;
- Jerry Kaneko, former Davis city councilmember, recalled being interned at a racetrack forced to sleep in horse stalls; and
- Kim Welborn told us her father was sent to an internment camp as a newborn, essentially born into a prison in a nation that stands for freedom.
These and other heart-wrenching testimonies made it clear that the Internment was not a distant problem – a problem of the big cities of Los Angeles or San Francisco. As the Naming Committee found, Korematsu represented the experiences not of people far away but of many of our own neighbors and civic leaders in Davis. In all 1300 people from Yolo County were evacuated to internment camps.
Indeed, it was this very point that President Bill Clinton made about Korematsu when awarding him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998: “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,” said Clinton, adding, “To that distinguished list, today we add the name of Fred Korematsu.”
As the school board naming decision drew close, we learned of another dark, local connection between Davis and the Internment. UC Davis Law School Professor Anupam Chander’s research revealed that in 1943, during the war, the Davis City Council had unanimously passed a resolution that not only supported the federal internment order, but also demanded that internees of Japanese descent be prohibited from returning to Davis once the war ended. (Professor Chander is my husband.) The resolution remained on the books in 2005, never having been repudiated.
Upon hearing of this injustice, Jim Provenza, now county supervisor, cast the third vote on the Davis School Board in favor of naming the school after Korematsu. Provenza said the naming helped to make amends for Davis’s past treatment of its Japanese American residents. The Nichi Bei Times reported the school board’s 2005 decision in detail here.
The following year, the Davis City Council voted to formally rescind the 1943 resolution. The 2006 resolution said the council “finds the revocation of the 1943 council action a step toward reconciliation and healing of past discrimination that has no place in a democratic society today.”
My work on the Korematsu naming campaign introduced me to many inspiring Davis community leaders, from Japanese American residents and leaders who had themselves been interned or who had helped to lead the reparations movement in the 1980s, to Muslim American leaders who were fighting against racial profilingsince September 11, 2001, to school board and city council members, to hundreds who lent their support to the naming. Many of my colleagues at the UC Davis School of Law also played pivotal roles in supporting the naming, particularly then school board member Marty West. West had a personal connection to the Internment herself. Her parents had left their jobs as school teachers in Los Angeles to volunteer as teachers in the Manzanar internment camp. Though as whites they were permitted to live comfortably outside the camp, they abhorred the injustice of this situation and voluntarily lived inside the camp with the internees. Later, after seeing the oppressive living conditions there, they helped internees leave the camp and relocate to Chicago.
In short, the campaign showed me just what a special community Davis is and can be. At the end of 2005 in its issue commemorating the heroes that died that year, The New York Times ran a story on Fred Korematsu and recognized Davis for naming being the first city in the country to name a school after the civil rights legend.
A Teaching Moment
I proposed Fred Korematsu as the new school’s namesake because he is great American hero, like Chavez and King, after whom we have named other schools in Davis. But Korematsu’s story also had much to teach young children. First and foremost, Korematsu demonstrated how one ordinary person can stand up for what is right and make a difference for thousands. Today, Korematsu Elementary proudly describes itself as a “social justice school” and children wear school t-shirts quoting Korematsu saying “If you have the feeling that something is wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up.” Teachers and administrators credit this message with helping to create an inclusive climate at the school, one that discourages bullying. The school song is “What Can One Little Person Do?” by Sally Rogers, with the refrain asking “What can one little me or you do?” Administrators, teachers, parents and students have embraced the legacy of Korematsu and bring it to life everyday.
Korematsu also helps broaden our understanding of what it means to be an American, demonstrating that this ultimately turns not on the color of our skin but our commitment to the U.S. Constitution. Naming a school after a Japanese American helps normalize names like Korematsu, so they are seen to be as all-American as Lincoln, Chavez, or Obama. Finally, Korematsu’s story reminds us of the importance of protecting the civil liberties during wartime of those who “look like the enemy.” This was a particularly important lesson in 2005, when many Muslim Americans were worried about their own standing in American society. Indeed, the California state legislature, thanks to the leadership of our own state assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, later recognized just this. California officially declared every January 30 as the “Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution.”
Madhavi Sunder is a Law Professor at UC Davis and a candidate for DJUSD School Board.