WASHINGTON — On April 26, President Obama named the late Gordon Hirabayashi one of 13 recipients of this year's Presidential Medal of Freedom awards.
Members of the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice — Asian American Institute, Asian American Justice Center, Asian Law Caucus and Asian Pacific American Legal Center — and the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education applauded the president for awarding the nation's highest civilian honor to Hirabayashi, who passed away on Jan. 2.
The medal is presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. Obama will present the awards at the White House in late spring.
“Gordon Hirabayashi was an American hero. We are thrilled to hear that he will receive a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, an honor which will help spread awareness of his courageous story,” said Ling Woo Liu, director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education, a program of the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco.
In 1942, Hirabayashi was a 24-year-old student at the University of Washington when President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Hirabayashi, an American citizen, refused to comply with the forced relocation order and instead turned himself in to the FBI in order to assert his belief that the internment order was racially discriminatory.
He was convicted by a U.S. District Court in Seattle of defying the exclusion order and violating curfew. Hirabayashi appealed his conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against him in 1943. Following World War II and his time in prison, Hirabayashi obtained his doctoral degree in sociology and became a professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. In 1987, his conviction was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
In 1999, the former Catalina Honor Camp in Arizona, where he was sentenced to hard labor in the 1940s, was renamed the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site
Since 2007, East West Players, an Asian American theater company in Los Angeles, has produced “Dawn’s Light,” a stage play based on his life.
In May 2011, acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal released an unprecedented “confession of error,” on behalf of the Department of Justice, in both the Korematsu and Hirabayashi cases.
Korematsu, who passed away in 2005, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1998. Korematsu's tombstone in Oakland's Mountain View Cemetery includes a replica of the medal.