“This order for the mass evacuation of all persons of Japanese descent denies them the right to live,” Seattle native Gordon Hirabayashi wrote in 1942. “I consider it my duty to maintain the democratic standards for which this nation lives. Therefore, I must refuse this order of evacuation.”
With that, Hirabayashi became one of just a handful of Japanese-Americans who defied the government’s move to put more than 100,000 of them in detention camps following the attack on Pearl Harbor. For his refusal, he was imprisoned more than a year.
It took four decades for Hirabayashi to be vindicated, with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that the internment policy “had been based on political expediency, not on any risk to national security,” as The Associated Press writes.
By then, Hirabayashi had become a respected sociologist and a hero in the Japanese-American community.
Monday, at the age of 93, he died. A son says Hirabayaski had Alzheimer’s disease, The New York Times reports.
Later today, All Things Considered plans to air a conversation with one of Hirabayashi’s nephews. As we were looking for more about Hirabayashi’s stand against the detention order and his life, we came across a winter 2000 University of Washington report with some fascinating details and some of his words about what happened:
– Hirabayashi was convicted [in 1942] and sentenced to 90 days in prison (plus time already served). Getting there, however, wasn’t as easy as it sounds. He was assigned to a minimum security prison in Arizona, but there was no money to transport him. ‘I asked, Why don’t I go on my own?‘ recalls Hirabayashi. The courts agreed to that, and wrote a letter in case he was questioned along the way. ‘I hitchhiked but didn’t realize how hard it would be due to severe gas rationing. It took me more than two weeks to get there, sleeping in ditches along the way and with friends where I had some. Finally, around Las Vegas, I gave up and bought a bus ticket.’ “
– “When Hirabayashi arrived at the prison — two weeks late — the staff could not find his papers. They tried to send him home, but Hirabayashi balked at the idea, believing that it could lead to more trouble in the future. ‘They told me to go out for a nice dinner and a movie while they looked for the papers,’ recalls Hirabayashi. ‘So I did. By the time I returned, they’d found the papers.’ “
– “Did the reversal [of his conviction] change Hirabayashi’s view of the United States? Most definitely, he says. ‘There was a time when I felt that the Constitution failed me,’ he explains. ‘But with the reversal in the courts and in public statements from the government, I feel that our country has proven that the Constitution is worth upholding. The U.S. government admitted it made a mistake. A country that can do that is a strong country. I have more faith and allegiance to the Constitution than I ever had before.’ “
In 2000, the university honored Hirabayashi at its “Celebration of Distinction, in recognition of exceptional lifetime achievement.”
San Francisco’s KGO-TV has a video report.
(H/T to NPR’s Amy Morgan.)