Gordon Hirabayashi, who passed away on Monday at age 93, is being hailed as an American hero.
As a 24-year-old student at the University of Washington, he violated curfew and exclusion orders directed at Japanese Americans on the West Coast. He appealed his conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against him. For refusing to report to an internment camp, he did jail time in Seattle and at a federal labor camp in Arizona.
In the 1980s, his case was reopened, along with those of Fred Korematsu and Min Yasui, and his conviction was overturned in federal court. It was ruled that the curfew and internment were based on race, not military necessity, as he had maintained from the beginning.
On Feb. 11, the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality at Seattle University School of Law will hold a day-long event commemorating the 25th anniversary of Hirabayashi’s legal victory. The event will feature multiple panels and an exhibit. For more information, visit www.law.seattleu.edu.
Hirabayashi, who taught sociology at the University of Alberta in Canada, suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in the final years of his life, according to his son. A Quaker memorial meeting will be held Friday at the Edmonton Japanese Community Association.
Survivors include his wife, Susan Carnahan; his daughters, Marion Oldenburg and Sharon Yuen, and his son, Jay, all from a previous marriage; a sister, Esther Furugori, also known as Tosh; a brother, James; nine grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. His former wife, Esther Hirabayashi (nee Schmoe), also passed away on Monday at age 87.
Following are reactions from community organizations and leaders.
• Rodney Kawakami, lead attorney for Hirabayashi’s 1980s legal team: “Gordon Hirabayashi was a principled man of peace who, with the courage of his convictions, left us with an enduring legal and social legacy. He inspired us to remember that our constitutional rights come with a price and that we have an obligation to be constantly vigilant to protect these cherished rights by speaking out in times of crisis, even when unpopular.”
• Bruce Embrey, co-chair of the Manzanar Committee (Los Angeles): “With the passing of Gordon Hirabayashi, we have lost a true hero, a true champion of civil rights. Asking for nothing more than equal treatment under the law, and demanding his constitutional rights, he made history. His historic stand in defense of the Constitution, and against the incarceration of the Nikkei community, serves as an inspiration to all who cherish democracy and human rights. On behalf of the Manzanar Committee, I want to extend our deepest condolences to his family, friends and loved ones. He will be sorely missed.”
• Assemblymember Mary Hayashi (D-Hayward), whose husband, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Dennis Hayashi, was a member of the Korematsu legal team: “Gordon Hirabayashi was a courageous individual who stood up against injustice in a time of great fear, hostility, and danger. He believed in protecting our rights as American citizens, and willingly put himself on the line in order to challenge the unconstitutionality of the Japanese American internment.”
• Jeanne Sakata, author of “Dawn’s Light,” a one-man show about Hirabayashi: “Today we mourn the loss and honor the memory of Gordon Hirabayashi, who challenged America to be its best and brightest even in some of its darkest hours. We thank you, Gordon, for your gentle and courageous light. For daring to say yes to America when it said no to you and your fellow Nisei, for daring to say yes to an America that was yet to come.”
• Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education (San Francisco): “The Korematsu Institute mourns the loss of Gordon Hirabayashi and his former wife, Esther Hirabayashi, who both passed away Monday, Jan. 2, 2012. Gordon Hirabayashi, along with Min Yasui and Fred Korematsu, were three of the four brave individuals who challenged the U.S. incarceration of Japanese Americans before the Supreme Court in the 1940s. Forty years later, these three men reopened their cases and continued to fight for justice. We remember an American hero today.”
(Editor’s note: The fourth Supreme Court case involved Mitsuye Endo, who demanded that she either be charged with a crime or released from camp. The court ruled in December 1944 that the government could not continue to hold a citizen whose loyalty was not in question. This hastened the closing of the camps, but the court never ruled on the constitutionality of the internment itself.)
• Frank Abe of Seattle, director/writer/producer of the documentary “Conscience and the Constitution”: “Gordon was not only a constitutional test case, he was a Nisei draft resister like the Heart Mountain boys. His case, along with those of Korematsu and Yasui, was opposed by National JACL because, as Mike Masaoka says on our new DVD, ‘they were criminal cases,’ and JACL favored its own habeas corpus case fronted by Mitsuye Endo.”
• John de Graaf, producer at KCTS-TV in Seattle: “I had the honor of making a film, ‘A Personal Matter: Gordon Hirabayashi v. The United States,’ about Gordon for PBS in 1992. It was moving to know him and hear his stories. He understood the meaning of both true patriotism and citizenship. He will be deeply missed.”
• Karen Kai and Robert Rusky of San Francisco, members of the Korematsu legal team who also helped with the Hirabayashi and Yasui cases: “Gordon was a man of extraordinary intellectual strength, philosophical principle and moral courage that guided him throughout his life. Even as a 24-year-old student, Gordon understood the importance of standing up for our nation’s professed values. Gordon reminded us of what America could be at its best, and we were privileged to know him as a friend. This is truly the passing of an era, and we will miss him greatly.”
• Lorraine Bannai, professor of legal skills and director of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality at Seattle University School of Law and a member of the Korematsu legal team: “It’s been a very sad day in the wake of Gordon’s passing. Fred, Min, now Gordon – three men who taught us so much about courage in the face of adversity – now gone. Those of us who worked on their coram nobis cases have been forever changed by the opportunity we had to work with them and for the cause they started to fight decades ago.
“Gordon, like Fred and Min, taught us much about generosity of spirit; the imperative to abide by one’s convictions, and the personal cost one sometimes must pay as a result; and the need to work for justice and the public good. Gordon took abstract principles, like what it means to be an American, what it means to be a member of a community, and what must be done in the name of peace, and gave them life and meaning through his actions and deeds. His quest for justice during World War II and in reopening his case decades later made him larger than life, but, in so many ways, he was just like a wise uncle teaching the ropes to young, upstart Sansei.”
• Peter Irons, retired UC San Diego political scientist, author of “Justice at War,” and the attorney who reopened the Korematsu, Hirabayashi and Yasui cases (quoted in the Los Angeles Times): “What Gordon should be most remembered for is taking a stand on a matter of principle at a time when hardly anyone — not only within the Japanese American community but the nation at large — sided with him or sympathized with him. It wasn’t at all like the civil rights movement where thousands of people engaged in demonstrations and civil disobedience. It was a very lonely stand.”
• Floyd Mori, JACL national executive director: “Gordon was a personal friend, and his passing has been a loss for the nation. He was a humble person who never glorified in the international notoriety he received. His legacy will continue to motivate civil rights activists for decades to come and will give us the strength and courage to continue to carry the torch for justice. The principles for which he stood are very relevant in today’s fight to maintain and uphold the basic due process rights of citizens and non-citizens alike. His fight, like today, pointed out that race alone should not be criteria for guilt. We offer our sincere condolences to the Hirabayashi family.”
• Dale Minami of Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco, lead attorney in the Korematsu case: “Gordon was a true American hero patriot who taught us that dissent is not disloyalty but the highest form of patriotism, especially when you are defending the Constitution and willing to go to jail for your conscience. He was one of the most principled people I have ever met and has been an inspiration to a whole new generation.”
• Kathryn Bannai, senior employment equity specialist at Rutgers University and lead counsel of the Hirabayashi legal team: “I am deeply saddened by the passing of Gordon Hirabayashi, who profoundly influenced me and so many of my generation. In addition to my appreciation for Gordon’s publicly acknowledged contributions and remarkable character, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to work closely with Gordon on his coram nobis case. Gordon’s vision, open-mindedness, and principled approach to the issues that arose during the case constituted an ongoing source of inspiration and guidance.”
• Tom Ikeda, director of Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project (Seattle): “Twelve years ago I remember feeling nervous about doing an oral history interview with Gordon Hirabayashi. In preparation I studied his story of opposing the government’s World War II racial curfew and exclusion orders targeted at Japanese Americans and I couldn’t help but put Gordon on a pedestal. As a college senior at the University of Washington, his reasoning was crisp and courageous to oppose the mass removal and incarceration based on democratic ideals and using a non-violent, direct approach grounded in his confidence in the Constitution. I knew I would soon be talking with a historical giant who took a principled stand and fought to improve civil rights in America.
“To my surprise, instead of finding a fiery civil rights activist, I discovered Gordon Hirabayashi, the teacher, who used intelligence, humor, and moral integrity to guide me. At first, in awe of him, I was unstructured and overly deferential, which led to a rambling conversation, whereupon Gordon gently prompted me to clarify the purpose of the interview. A second interview went much better with Gordon suggesting ideas to discuss. By the fifth session I finally felt much more relaxed and confident, and now realize how much Gordon helped me not only to become a better interviewer, but to enjoy the process.
“Thank you, Gordon.”
To hear National Public Radio’s interview with Hirabayashi’s nephew, UCLA professor Lane Hirabayashi, click here.