Amid all the wearying hullabaloo over the Iowa caucus, the passing of a major figure in American history seemed to have slipped off the radar. Gordon Hirabayashi, who died at 93 on Monday, was one of a small handful of Japanese-Americans to legally contest the Roosevelt Administration’s internment policy—a policy that, in this project’s humble opinion, was a national shame of the highest order. The 1943 New York Times piece (PDF) recounting the failure of Hirabayashi’s lawsuit against the federal government did a good job of explaining his Kafkaesque situation:
Hirabayashi, born in Seattle twenty-five years ago was a senior at the University of Washington and had never been in Japan, whence his parents came. He was sentenced to serve three months for violating the curfew regulation and three months for failing to register for evacuation from the military area.
So much for the promise that anyone can reinvent themselves as an American. And yet Hirabayashi never lost faith that the internment scandal was just as an aberration, summing up his attitude in a quote that deserves to be remembered for the ages:
I was able to hold my head up high, because I wasn’t objecting and saying “no,” but was saying “yes” to a prior principle, the highest of principles.
Hirabayashi was finally vindicated over four decades later, when a federal appeals court overturned his conviction. Today, the righteousness of his legal cause seems every bit as obvious as the propagandistic Superman cartoon above seems cheesy. But let’s hope it doesn’t fade from memory should there be another public debate over the relative merits of expediency and basic civil rights.