Written by Lawrence Matsuda
Over and above any man-made creed or law is the natural law of life—the right of human individuals to live and to creatively express themselves. No man was born with the right to limit that law. – Gordon Hirabayashi
Gordon Hirabayashi was born in Seattle on April 23rd, 1918, and was raised as a Christian in Auburn’s White River Valley. He graduated from Auburn High School and was attending the University of Washington when World War II broke out. In 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which allowed the military to issue orders subjecting Japanese and Japanese Americans to a curfew and then forced removal and incarceration. Gordon refused to comply as a matter of principle.
Accompanied by lawyer Arthur Barnett, he turned himself in to the local FBI office, saying he could not obey an order he believed to be racially discriminatory. A local defense committee, which included civil liberties advocates and Quakers, supported his case. Gordon was charged with violating the military orders, and, on June 22, 1943, in a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court in Hirabayashi v. U.S. affirmed his conviction.
Gordon served approximately nine months in the King County Jail and further time at the Catalina Federal Honor Camp and the Pima County Jail in Arizona. In 1944, Gordon refused to complete a Selective Service System form because it discriminated against Japanese Americans. Based on the racially discriminatory nature of the form, he returned it blank and was sentenced to one year at the McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary.
I never look at my case as just my own, or just as a Japanese American case. It is an American case, with principles that affect the fundamental human rights of all Americans. – Gordon Hirabayashi
After the war, Gordon completed his BA, MA, and PhD degrees in sociology from the University of Washington. After graduation in 1952, he took positions at American University in Beirut and later in Egypt. In 1959, he moved to the University of Alberta and became chair of the Department of Sociology. He retired in 1983 and continued his work for human rights.
That year, Gordon filed suit to reopen his wartime case and prove that the Japanese American community had been wronged. His petition proved that the government had suppressed, altered, and destroyed material evidence while arguing Gordon’s WWII case and that its claims were false that the orders issued against Japanese Americans were justified by military necessity.
In the Seattle hearing on Gordon’s case, Judge Donald Voorhees vacated Gordon’s 1942 conviction for failure to report for removal, but upheld his conviction for violating curfew. On appeal, Judge Mary Schroeder of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated both convictions stating, “A United States citizen who is convicted of a crime on account of race is lastingly aggrieved.” Hirabayashi called it a victory and “vindication… for the rights of citizens during crisis periods.”
Gordon passed away in January 2012 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, at the age of ninety-three. On May 29th of that year, President Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his “open defiance of discrimination against Japanese Americans” during World War II and his pursuit of justice.