As the U.S. government rolled out an order to place all Japanese Americans and immigrants of Japanese descent to incarceration camps during World War II, one student immediately found the decision racially discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Hirabayashi obeyed only briefly before openly defying the curfew orders despite the possible punishment he might face.
“I wasn’t a rebel looking for a cause,” Hirabayashi was quoted saying by a UW newsletter in 2000. “In fact, I was preparing to go. But in the days before I was supposed to leave, I realized that I couldn’t do it.”
He also decided to turn himself in to the FBI rather than follow the government’s order to register for relocation to be placed in one of the incarceration camps that were set up across several states.
According to the mandate, violators would face a fine of up to $5,000 and a year in jail.
In his autobiography “A Principled Stand: The Story of Hirabayashi v. United States,” Hirabayashi recalled his mother’s reaction to his civil disobedience.
My brother Ed heard Mom crying and begging. She had read The Count of Monte Cristo, and as that was her only reference to jails and prisons, she worried about the consequences of my decision. I might face the firing squad or something like that. I told her, “If I change my mind because of your pressure, it wouldn’t be good. I need to retain my own self-respect, because when I take this stand, I am following what I think is right. I can’t change my views, since I’d rather remain true to my beliefs and be true to you as your son.”
He was later arrested after his diary, which contained several entries on why he chose to disobey the order, was found and used against him as evidence.
Hirabayashi remained in custody at the King County Jailfor five months after refusing to post a $500 bail while waiting for his district court trial. Hepleaded not guilty during his arraignment on June 1, 1942, on the grounds that the basis of E.O. 9066 was unconstitutional.
He eventually lost his case and was initially sentenced to 60 days in prison. However, Hirabayashi requested to serve his term in a road camp, which required his sentence to be increased to 90 days.
Although Hirabayashi’s legal team appealed his case to the Supreme Court, the first to challenge the morality and legality of the Japanese incarceration camps during WWII, the court unanimously upheld the past conviction as constitutional on June 21, 1943.
Speaking to Professor Peter Irons for the 1988 book “The Courage of Their Convictions: Sixteen Americans Who Fought Their Way to the Supreme Court,” Hirabayashi recounted the court loss.
Surprisingly, even though I lost, I did not abandon my beliefs and my values. 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.
On the day that he was supposed to start serving his term, District Attorney Edward Connelly informed Hirabayashi he would have to serve his time in Spokane County Jail instead since the Dupont Road Camp outside Tacoma, Washington, was inside the exclusion zone.
Not wanting to be confined in jail, Hirabayashi asked the District Attorney if there was another nearby road camp. He was informed of the Tucson Federal Prison, also formerly known as the Catalina Federal Honor Camp, in Arizona, Texas.
Since the government could not provide money or transportation to the camp at the time, Connelly allowed Hirabayashi to hitchhike his way to Arizona. He eventually served his 90-day term in July 1943.
Hirabayashi’s fight against the U.S. government’s racially discriminatory practices during WWII continued again soon after his release from the road camp.
In July 1944, he was jailed again for a year after refusing to answer the “loyalty questionnaire,” stating in his letter that the form had singled out Japanese Americans based on their race, and failing to comply with the Selective Service’s draft orders.
After serving his time at the McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington, Hirabayashi eventually continued his education at UW, where he earned his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in sociology.
He then joined the University of Alberta faculty and became their chair of sociology from 1970 to 1975 before retiring in 1983.
His case during WWII was eventually overturned in 1987 after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted him a writ of error coram nobis.
The decision was made after Irons, a political science professor at the University of California, uncovered documents in 1981 pointing out government misconduct during the 1942 trial.
Hirabayashi’s case was just one of the few cases related to the E.O. 9066 that the American legal system had later overturned, with another prominent case being that of Fred Korematsu.
The overturning of his conviction ended up changing Hirabayashi’s view of the United States.
There was a time when I felt that the Constitution failed me. But with the reversal in the courts and in public statements from the government, I feel that our country has proven that the Constitution is worth upholding. The U.S. government admitted it made a mistake. A country that can do that is a strong country. I have more faith and allegiance to the Constitution than I ever had before.
Hirabayashi, who was born in Sandpoint, Washington, on April 23, 1918, died on Jan. 2, 2012. President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, posthumously in May 2012.
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