Last week, Americans lost a courageous and little-known civil rights hero. Gordon Hirabayashi was the last surviving of only three Japanese Americans who stood up and refused when the U.S. government ordered them to move to internment camps at the beginning of World War Two.
Instead, he willingly went to jail. “I was not sure that I could abandon my values, goals and self-respect and still serve my family, community and country,” he later explained. “[I was] doing something on behalf of the American Constitution, the freedom of religion, the freedom of decision.”
Considering Hirabayashi’s life can provoke inspiration and questions around the Pillar of Citizenship. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day is right around the corner, a time when many classes discuss historic civil rights struggles and the ways responsible citizens fight for change. Whenever the topic comes up, Hirabayashi and his co-resisters are worthy of remembering as well.
Hirabayashi was relatively young when he took his stand against internment – a college student at the University of Washington in Seattle. His parents ran a fruit and vegetable stand, and his family had little money. In 1942, after the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor, the federal government first ordered all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast of the U.S. to observe an 8 p.m. curfew.
As described in a 2006 story in the University of Washington alumni association magazine,
For a week, Gordon Hirabayashi followed the rules. He would be studying with his friends. “They’d say, ‘Hey Gordon, five minutes to go,’ and I’d gather up and beat it home,” he recalled. Then came a revelation. “I said, ‘Why am I dashing back when my fellow American dorm mates are continuing to do what they were doing?’ The obvious factor of my Japanese ancestry, that’s the only reason that differentiated me on this order, and I said to myself, ‘Gee, if the American Constitution means anything at all, this is wrong. And if I believe in the Constitution, I’ve got to object to this.’” After that, Hirabayashi refused to follow the curfew.
Then news spread that internments were coming. Japanese Americans had to quickly settle their affairs and prepare to leave their homes for an unknown length of time. Farmers and other business owners had to hastily sell their land and businesses, or trust them to the care of others. Students tried to make arrangements to finish their courses by correspondence.
Despite the orders, it was hard for many students to believe the internments were really going to happen. “I was an American citizen and nothing would happen to me,” Hirabayashi said later, remembering his initial attitude. “We really believed that. In fact, later, as we were being picked up, even as it was happening, we could not really believe it was happening to us!”
Today, the fact that the U.S. government forcibly interred its citizens in camps for years is acknowledged as a gross violation of civil rights. However, it can be shocking to today’s observers that very few people — either in the Japanese American community, in various U.S. human rights groups, or in the general population — protested these laws. During wartime, citizens felt tremendous legal, social, and military pressure to show complete loyalty to the state. And that meant going along with orders without question.
But Hirabayashi was one of the exceptions. On his campus, he discussed the internment orders with his classmates. Some young people agreed with him that the interments were wrong, but in the end, did not resist the orders because of family pressure. Hirabayashi had one particular friend, a fellow Quaker and fellow pacifiist, with whom he discussed his feelings.
“There was no question. This was wrong as far as we were concerned, and if we were good citizens we’d point this out by refusing it,” recaleed Hirabayashi. Nevertheless, his friend decided to go to the camps with his parents, who desperately wanted their whole family to stay together.
Hirabayashi’s family also wanted him to accompany them, but he stood fast. After the last bus of Japanese Americans left Seattle for the camps, Hirabayashi turned himself in at the local FBI office, and gave the agents a statement he had spent many hours and careful thought preparing.
The statement laid down Hirabayashi’s reasoning. “I consider it my duty to maintain the democratic standards for which this nation lives. Therefore, I must refuse this order for evacuation,” he wrote, adding that he appreciated the “sympathetic and honest efforts” of military personnel carrying out the order. He also refused to condemn Japanese Americans who obeyed the edict. “They have faced tragedy admirably,” he wrote.
Hirabayashi served a prison sentence in Tucson, Ariz. His case, along with those of two other resisters — Minoru Yasui, an attorney in Portland, Ore., and Fred Korematsu, a welder from Oakland, Calif. — eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In all three cases, decided while World War Two still raged, the Court sided with the government, and said that ordering internment, or special rules like curfews, on the basis of race was not unconstitutional.
But in 1987, the conviction was overturned in federal court, thanks to a researcher who uncovered a U.S. Navy report from 1941 that concluded that there was no legitimate military reason to move Japanese Americans away from the West Coast. When the federal government had argued its case in front of the Supreme Court, it had illegally suppressed this report, which proved that the evacuation order was rooted in racism and war hysteria, not in military necessity.
In 1988, the U.S. government formally apologized for the internments.
In 2000, Hirabayashi said, “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.”
Hirabayashi died this month at age 93, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where he had worked as a sociology professor for many years.