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Remembering Gordon Hirabayashi

Dorothy M. Ehrlich,
Deputy Executive Director
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January 11, 2012

Gordon Hirabayashi was an American-born student at the University of Washington in 1942, when he was ordered in his senior year to report to an internment camp in northern California. He refused.

Only a handful of remarkably courageous individuals defied the internment orders. Hirabayashi was not only the youngest; his decision was a clear act of civil disobedience based on his deeply held pacifist beliefs.

In every respect, Hirobayashi’s defiance made him a civil rights hero. He died last week in Edmonton, Alberta, at the age of 93.

Some 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned in America’s concentration camps — a shameful act of wartime hysteria based on racial prejudice. Hirabayashi challenged the curfew he was subject to and the internment order.

“If I were to register and cooperate… I would be giving helpless consent to the denial of practically all of the things which give me incentive to live,” he said then. “I must maintain the democratic standards for which this nation lives. I am objecting to the principle of this order which denies the right of human beings, including citizens.”

Hirabayashi spent three-and-a-half years in county jails and federal prison, during which time a legal challenge was brought, which ended with the U. S. Supreme Court upholding the internment orders as a necessary restraint on freedom during wartime.

Following his imprisonment, Hirabayashi returned to his native Seattle and completed a doctorate in sociology. He embarked upon an academic career and taught sociology at the University of Alberta. Throughout his life, he spoke out against the extraordinary injustice.

In 1983, Hirabayashi joined Fred Korematsu (who was directly represented in his original U.S. Supreme Court challenge by the ACLU of Northern California) and Minoru Yasui in successfully overturning their wartime convictions.

Armed with evidence that the government had lied –it had obtained the evacuation orders based on false information and that the proof of this fabrication came directly from the government’s own files — all three convictions were ultimately overturned, setting the stage for an historic and unprecedented apology and reparations to all internees, with President Ronald Reagan’s signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

Hirabayashi said that, “the Constitution does not mean anything unless it can stand up in a time of crises. In 1942 the whole system of government failed us.” He implored us, “to make sure that what happened to us then doesn’t happen again, to anyone. “

In June 2001 the ACLU jointly presented Hirabayashi and Korematsu with its highest award, the Roger Baldwin Medal of Liberty.

The ACLU pledges to honor Gordon Hirabayashi’ s inspiring admonition, in his memory and in memory of his colleagues who died before him, Korematsu and Yasui These courageous men will not be forgotten. Their heroic challenge to injustice will endure as a constant reminder to the ACLU of the desperate need for courage at times of national crises.

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