This is an archived article.

April 18, 2000

UW honors distinguished alum who resisted World War II internment

News and Information

Social scientist, humanist and human rights activist Gordon Hirabayashi will be honored by his alma mater, the University of Washington, in ceremonies May 9. The event will culminate a series of activities that week focused on Hirabayashi and the Japanese American experience.

The UW College of Arts and Sciences will confer upon Hirabayashi its Distinguished Alumnus Award at its Tenth Annual Celebration of Distinction Dinner. Proceeds from the dinner will be used to establish the Gordon Hirabayashi Professorship for the Advancement of Citizenship.

“During the years of Japanese American internment, Gordon became a moral symbol of resistance to unjust laws,” says UW President Richard L. McCormick. “By challenging the government policy of internment in cases that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, he transformed what had been a particular grievance by the Japanese American community into a universal issue of human rights. We owe a great debt to this man for reminding us of our humanity in the midst of a period when our nation came close to losing it.”

Other events that week include a major scholarly conference, “The Nikkei Experience in the Pacific Northwest,” May 4 to 6. The conference will panel discussions and papers on the experience of Nikkei (people of Japanese descent) in the American and Canadian Pacific Northwest. It will conclude a special screening of a new documentary, “Conscience and the Constitution,” a production of the Independent Television Service. More details about the conference are available from the Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, 206-543-8656; cspn@u.washington.edu.

In addition, Hirabayashi will give a lecture at the UW law school at 3:30 p.m. May 8 in Condon 109/129, entitled, “Citizenship During a Time of Crisis: A Statement of Conscience.”

Hirabayashi was born in 1918 in Seattle and began his studies at the UW in 1937. In 1942, while still at the University, Hirabayashi defied the curfew imposed on Japanese Americans in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He later refused to report for relocation on the grounds that the curfew and exclusion order were based solely on race and therefore were unconstitutional. He turned himself in to the FBI and was tried and convicted in the Federal District Court of Seattle. His conviction was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was upheld in 1943. After the ruling, he served his sentence in a federal road camp in Arizona. Upon release, he returned to the University of Washington, completing a bachelor’s (1946), master’s (1949) and doctorate (1952) in sociology, with a minor in anthropology.

Forty years after Hirabayashi v. U.S., legal historians examining recent unclassified documents discovered that the United States government knew during the trial that Japanese Americans were not considered to be a threat or danger to the defense of the country, but this information was withheld. Hirabayashi’s case was again placed before a federal judge; the lead attorney, and many members of the legal team, were UW alumni or UW faculty members. In 1986, the court ruled that wartime orders constituted “error of the most fundamental character.” Hirabayashi’s conviction for violating the evacuation order was overturned.

Hirabayashi began his teaching career at the American University in Beirut as chair of the Sociology Department. Subsequently, he headed the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and was assistant director of the Social Research Center at the American University in Cairo. In 1959, he accepted an appointment at the University of Alberta, where he played a critical role in the development of the social sciences in Canada. In 1983, Hirabayashi became Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta. He remains committed to speaking, teaching, and advocating on peace and human rights issues.

Individual tickets to the Celebration of Distinction are $100, a table of ten is $1,000. To make a reservation, call (206) 543-0540. If you cannot attend but wish to contribute to the professorship, please send your check (made payable to the University of Washington Foundation) to: Hirabayashi Professorship, c/o UWAA, 1415 NE 45th St., Seattle, WA, 98105.