The American Friends Service Committee mourns the passing of Gordon Hirabayashi, a civil rights icon, Friend, and former AFSC staff member, on January 2, 2012.
His deep convictions made him challenge the authority of a military decree to intern Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II - thus raising the most profound issues that can be raised concerning American citizenship.
He spent more than two years in several prisons for violating exclusion and curfew orders, but appealed his case all the way to the US Supreme Court. He cleared his name four decades after his 1942 arrest and, in the process, helped prove the US falsified the reasons for the mass incarceration.
Gordon Hirabayashi became a Quaker in 1941, while he attended the University of Washington. He worked with AFSC periodically from 1941 through 1945, helping families handle their affairs before internment.
As his case was wending its way through the courts, Gordon was released on bail and was permitted to go to Spokane, where again he worked with AFSC. While working for AFSC, he helped relocate families once they were released from internment– even cutting the grass before one family moved in (August 23, 1943).
AFSC helped fund his legal battle, creating the Gordon Hirabayashi Defense Committee and garnering support from Friends, ministers, professors, businessmen, and a state senator. During the trial and afterwards, AFSC often cited his letter to the FBI refusing to submit to internment or obey curfew laws.
It reads in part: “This order for the mass evacuation of all persons of Japanese descent denies them the right to live... It kills the desire for a higher life. Hope for the future is exterminated… If I were to register and cooperate under these circumstances, I would be giving helpless consent to the denial of practically all of the things which give me incentive to live. I must maintain my Christian principles. I consider it my duty to maintain the democratic standards for which this nation lives.” (1942 Statement)
In September 1987, a three-judge panel of a federal appeals court in San Francisco unanimously overturned Gordon Hirabayashi’s conviction for failing to register for evacuation and for ignoring a curfew.
“When my case was before the Supreme Court in 1943, I fully expected that as a citizen the Constitution would protect me. Surprisingly, even though I lost, I did not abandon my beliefs and values,” he is quoted as saying in the 1988 book The Courage of Their Convictions: Sixteen Americans Who Found Their Way to the Supreme Court.
“And 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.”