Here at Brightlane Learning, we’re dedicated to recognizing, learning from, and celebrating the history and contributions of the various communities and identities that have shaped our diverse nation throughout history. May marks the observance of two important heritage months: Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Jewish American Heritage Month.
This May, we’re highlighting four individuals who have dedicated their lives to advocating for and improving their communities.
Fred Korematsu, Civil Rights Activist
Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu was born to Japanese immigrant parents in 1905. He was interested in joining the U.S. Army after high school until he was told by a recruiting officer that they had orders not to accept people who looked like him. This was his first encounter with racism. Fred applied to join the U.S. National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard but was rejected. He later became a welder to support U.S. defense efforts. His first job was at a shipyard, where he was harassed by coworkers and told he could not work there because he was Japanese. He continued to find work but was repeatedly fired for being Japanese.
The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 resulted in President Roosevelt issuing Executive Order 9066 in March of 1942, which led to the removal of anyone with Japanese ancestry from their homes and imprisonment in internment camps. Fred refused the order, underwent plastic surgery, changed his name to evade internment, and went into hiding. Fred was found and arrested on May 3, 1942. Soon after, he was approached by the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and asked if they could use his case to determine the legality of Japanese American internment.
In 1944, with the support of the ACLU, Fred challenged the executive order in Korematsu V. United States, which resulted in his conviction for evading and a sentence of five years of probation. Immediately after his conviction, he and his family were relocated to the Central Utah War Relocation Center, a Japanese American concentration camp in Topaz, Utah.
After being released from the camps, Fred moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he worked to combat racism and inequality. He worked various jobs and ultimately fell dormant for more than 30 years due to feeling defeated after facing decades of discrimination. In 1976, President Gerald Ford terminated Executive Order 9066 and apologized for the internment of Japanese Americans. Later, President Jimmy Carter appointed a special commission to investigate the detention of Japanese Americans and declared that the implementation of Executive Order 9066 was a result of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” In 1988, President Regan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which resulted in payments of $20,000 to each surviving detainee, totaling 1.2 billion dollars.
Four decades later, Fred’s conviction was overturned by the U.S. District Court after the introduction of new evidence that had initially been withheld. In 1998, President Clinton awarded Fred with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying, “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.”
Fred spoke out and wrote several briefs against the mistreatment of Middle Eastern Americans after September 11, 2001, because he felt that prisoners had been detained too long at Guantanamo Bay and feared that history would repeat itself. Fred was later appointed to the Constitution Project’s Liberty and Security Committee, where he constantly reminded the government not to repeat history by treating other ethnic groups how Japanese Americans had been treated and fighting against and bringing awareness to other issues such as racial profiling. He served on the committee until his death in 2005.
Kiyoshi Kuromiya, Civil Rights Activist & Author
Kiyoshi Kuromiya was born at the Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Wyoming on May 9, 1943. In 1961, he left for college to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.
Kiyoshi became involved in human rights activities in college, including the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE), which organized diner sit-ins. After attending the March on Washington in 1963, Kiyoshi met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and James Baldwin. He eventually worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement. Kiyoshi also participated in several notable protests, including the “Freedom Hotel,” where he and others took over Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to support those injured during the Selma march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. While in the southern United States the following week, Kiyoshi, Dr. King, and others were attacked by the police while trying to help a group of high school students register to vote. While hospitalized and under arrest, Kiyoshi confronted the presiding office about the incident and received an apology. Dr. King said that was the first time a Southern officer had ever apologized for an attack on civil rights workers. Kiyoshi became close to King and his family through their work. He even helped care for King’s children after his assassination.
In addition to Kiyoshi’s civil rights work, he also was instrumental in antiwar demonstrations. He was responsible for the largest antiwar protest in the history of the University of Pennsylvania, which drew thousands of people. He was also known for creating protest posters and flyers, eventually leading to his arrest by the federal marshals and the secret service.
Kiyoshi was also involved with the Gay Liberation Movement and publicly came out as gay at a protest on July 4, 1965. After the Stonewall riots in 1969, he helped co-found the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). The GLF was more diverse than other organizations fighting for equal rights and creating safe spaces for the gay community. They also stood in solidarity with the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords, who supported them. Kiyoshi returned to the University of Pennsylvania in 1972 and created the first gay campus organization, Gay Coffee Hour.
When the AIDS epidemic began in America, Kiyoshi got involved in the movement and founded the first ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) chapter in Philadelphia. He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1989 and became more active in the movement. After his diagnosis, he worked to educate himself and others, which led to his creation of the ACT UP Standards of Care, the first of its kind for people with HIV. Kiyoshi also founded the Critical Path Newsletter, which he mailed worldwide to help educate people about AIDS who could not access the information. The newsletter evolved and became one of the first publicly accessible resources on HIV treatment and one of the first websites for HIV/AIDS information. The Critical Path AIDS Project was created as a result and hosted a 24-hour hotline offering support and resources to people with HIV in Philadelphia. Kiyoshi died of cancer on May 10, 2000, just one day after his 57th birthday.
Jack Greenberg, Civil Rights Attorney
Jack Greenberg was born to immigrant Jewish parents in 1924. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, fighting in Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Jack witnessed brazen racial prejudice while serving and eventually found himself in jeopardy of being court-martialed due to yelling at a superior officer for mistreating black crew members.
Jack graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 1945 and his law degree in 1948, both from Columbia University. After law school, he became the only white legal counselor for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF), where he worked alongside Thurgood Marshall. While in this role, Jack argued high-profile cases such as Brown v. Board of Education, where he acted as co-counsel with Thurgood Marshall to end public school segregation. He also argued Meredith v. Fair, which was instrumental in integrating the University of Mississippi, Griggs v. Duke Power Company, which outlawed discriminatory hiring and promotion practices, and Furman v. Georgia, which led to changes in the death penalty that violated the Eighth Amendment clause “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Jack was also a founding member of Human Rights Watch, an organization that researches, advocates, and pressures governments, companies, etc., to denounce human rights abuses, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a civil rights organization that works to protect the rights of Latinos and Hispanics in the United States.
In 1970, he became an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School, a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School in 1971, and a visiting professor at the College of the City of New York in 1977. In 1982, he was appointed to teach race law at Harvard Law School. After leaving LDF in 1984, Jack became a full-time professor and Vice Dean at Columbia Law School and the Dean of Columbia College in 1989. He also wrote several books on civil rights and law and even a cookbook. President Bill Clinton awarded him a Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001, calling him a “crusader of freedom and equality.”
Naomi Wadler, Social Justice Activist
Naomi Wadler was born in Ethiopia in 2006 before she was adopted by American parents and moved to the United States in 2007. Naomi is Ethiopian Jewish and experienced discrimination and racism at an early age because of her faith and ethnicity.
After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, Naomi and an 11-year-old friend organized a walkout at her Alexandria, Virginia, elementary school. She was accompanied by 60 of her classmates who stood with her in silence for 18 minutes for the victims of the high school shooting and one minute for Courtlin Arrington, a black female student who was a victim of gun violence at Huffman High School in Birmingham, Alabama shortly after the Parkland shooting.
After these events, Naomi was determined to change the narrative around black girls, acknowledging and representing the stories that do not make the news. In March 2018, Naomi was the second youngest speaker at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. She brought awareness to the disproportionate number of black female victims of gun violence in the United States during her speech. She also spoke at the Teen Vogue and Women in the World summits to continue bringing attention to black victims killed in other shootings. Naomi also spoke at the 2020 Davos Economic Forum and highlighted the racial disparities in addressing gun violence against black people, specifically black women and girls.
She continues to highlight the voices of black girls on issues such as education, economics, health, violence, and justice. After meeting Ellen DeGeneres in 2019, Naomi began a youth-led web series, DiversiTEA with Naomi Wadler. The series aims to bring awareness to positive stories related to black women and girls that will inspire others and help make the world a better place. Today, Naomi travels the country interviewing people who believe in and will help elevate her message.