By Greg Hugh

A reception was recently held in the atrium of the U.S. Courthouse in Minneapolis to open a new exhibit, “Asian Pacific Legal Experience in America,” presented by the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota.

The exhibition consists of 24 banners that show in pictures and text the legal history of Asian Pacific peoples in the United States through three pivotal events:  the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Japanese American Incarceration during WWII, and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. 


U.S. District Court Chief Judge Michael J. Davis welcomed the gathering and introduced Magistrate Judge Tony Leung, whom Davis noted was the first Asian-American judge in Minnesota, appointed to the state court in 1994 and became the first Asian-Pacific American to serve on the federal bench.

Leung provided a quick program overview by thanking Davis for his support of this project, which was conceived just seven months ago.  Although there wasn’t any kind of exhibits available, other judges and members of the local legal profession volunteered to help and a Program Development Committee was formed.  This committee then created the banners by becoming amateur historians, museum curators, copyright negotiators and graphic design artists.

According to Leung, the major themes in the banners were developed from his Asian American course studies at Yale and from speeches he had given on the topic over the years since.  “The major themes discerned from the exhibition banners, and which mark the ambivalent history of Asian Pacific peoples in America, are:  opportunity, economics, racism and hope.”

Attendees were encouraged to review closely the exhibition banners because there is much historical content in the text as well as symbolic meaning in the colors and photos chosen, and in the use of the Golden Gate Bridge and Chinese characters in the introductory banner.   

As this year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, this is the topic of the green banners.  

Leung noted that Asian Pacific history in America would not be complete without a reference to the impact of the War in Vietnam and Southeast Asia so it was appropriate to recognize those people who fought and sacrificed on the side of America.  Although” those who gave their last full measure are not here today, those who are deserve special recognition.”  He asked the gathering to provide a round of applause to high-ranking Hmong veterans of the Royal Lao Army who were in attendance.  Also recognized were veterans of the Military Services of the former Republic of Vietnam.  

Leung then introduced Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Keyes who continued the program with recognition of the survivors of the Japanese incarceration.  There were eight survivors from various internment camps in attendance, and Keyes asked them to stand and be recognized.  Keyes noted that more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans were relocated to 10 camps that were located mostly on Indian reservations in the interior of the country.

In spite of this treatment, more than 5,300 individuals from these camps volunteered to serve in the military and were members of the most highly decorated units of the military.  Many relocated to Minnesota and served in Military Intelligence Service facilities that were established in Camp Savage and Fort Snelling.  Concluding his remarks, Keyes introduced keynote speaker Karen Korematsu, executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute. 

Korematsu is the daughter of the late Fred T. Korematsu, a national and civil rights hero.  In 1942, at the age of 23, he refused to go to the Japanese internment camps.  He was arrested and convicted of defying the government’s order.  He appealed his case to the Supreme Court and in 1944, the Supreme Court ruled against him, arguing that the incarceration was justified due to military necessity.

Karen Korematsu learned about her father’s story in school.  This was something her father chose not to share with his children even though it affected his ability to pursue a career in real estate because he had to disclose his conviction. 

Finally, in 1983, Prof. Peter Irons, University of California, San Diego, a legal historian, together with researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, discovered key documents that government intelligence agencies had hidden from the Supreme Court in 1944.  The documents consistently showed that Japanese Americans had committed no acts of treason to justify mass incarceration.  With this new evidence, a pro bono legal team that included the Asian Law Caucus re-opened Korematsu’s 40-year-old case on the basis of government misconduct.  On Nov. 10, 1985, Korematsu’s conviction was overturned in a federal court in San Francisco.  It was a pivotal point in civil rights history.

In 2009, Karen Korematsu founded the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education at the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco.  She has been the Institute’s executive director since May 2013 and helped establish January 30 as the annual “Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution” in California.  She is a highly respected civil rights advocate, teacher workshop presenter and a much sought-after public speaker throughout the United States.

As Korematsu began her presentation, she acknowledged that this was her first visit to Minnesota and that she was very impressed by and also felt a connection because of Fort Snelling, where the language school for training military linguists in Japanese was located. 

Korematsu also commented on the use of the terms “internment” and “incarceration.”  She stated that however you may want to soften it, Japanese Americans had no choice and in fact were incarcerated.  She also cautioned that “the law that permitted this to take place is still the law and unfortunately, in times of war, the law falls silent.”

The Exhibition is open to the public for viewing in the atrium of the U.S. Courthouse in Minneapolis (300 South Fourth St.) through June 5, during regular court hours.  Thereafter, it will be in the Courthouse in St. Paul (316 North Robert St.) for two weeks before going to the Courthouse in Duluth (515 West First St.) for another two weeks.  Sponsors include the Minnesota Asian Pacific American Bar Association and the Minnesota Chapter of the Federal Bar Association.

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