Remembering Gordon Hirabayashi, Japanese-American Civil Rights Hero

By Cnn, Stephanie Siek | St. Joseph News-Press, January 6, 2012 | Go to article overview

Remembering Gordon Hirabayashi, Japanese-American Civil Rights Hero


Cnn, Stephanie Siek, St. Joseph News-Press


(CNN) -- Twelve years before the U.S. Supreme Court decided separate was inherently unequal, and five months after a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Gordon Hirabayashi took a stand that he believed would validate his rights as a citizen of the United States.

The son of Japanese immigrants, Hirabayashi lent his name to a landmark court case that challenged the U.S. government's policy of treating anyone of Japanese descent as a potential enemy during World War II. Hirabayashi, 93, died January 2 in Edmonton, Alberta, after suffering from Alzheimer's disease for several years, according to his son. Hirabayashi's former wife, Esther, died hours later at a different medical facility in Edmonton. Hirabayashi was cremated, and a memorial service is scheduled for Friday at the Edmonton Japanese Community Association.

"It's a sad day, but I think all of us in the family are happy to see the recognition Gordon's getting," said his nephew, Lane Hirabayashi, a UCLA anthropologist who is co-authoring a biography of Hirabayashi. "This can also be a time that people reflect on what happened. That's really important."

Hirabayashi resisted a government policy that treated people of Japanese descent as second-class citizens with fewer rights. He was a 24-year-old student at University of Washington when he defied an executive order from President Franklin Roosevelt that mandated an 8 p.m. curfew for all people of Japanese descent living on the West coast. The curfew was a precursor to the roundup of 120,000 Japanese Americans and legal residents for transportation to internment camps.

Hirabayashi, an American citizen, intentionally violated the curfew and turned himself in to the FBI. He was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to serve 90 days in a prison camp in Arizona. However, the local government told him that they lacked the money to transport him there fromWashington state. Intent on serving his time, Hirabayashi hitchhiked to the facility instead.

He took his 1942 challenge of World War II-era restrictions on Japanese-Americans all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But in 1943, the court unanimously ruled that military necessity justified imposing an ethnicity-specific curfew. Hirabayashi served time in prison and in a work camp before being granted a pardon in 1947.

It would take until 1985 for a U.S. district judge to rule that Hirabayashi's conviction was tainted by the U.S. government's withholding of evidence that would have proved Japanese-Americans were not a threat. It took until 1987 for his curfew conviction to be overturned.

"He certainly instilled in me a strong belief in the values of integrity, and honesty, and justice," said Jay Hirabayashi, his son. …

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