A legacy of courage

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Gordon Hirabayashi was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle when the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, plunged the United States into World War II.

Barely two months later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the imprisonment of thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry.

FDR’s order, signed February 19, 1942, sanctioned the rounding up of thousands of families up and down the West Coast who were sent to camps in ten states and held until after the war’s end.

Hirabayashi, born and raised on American soil, refused to go, believing he and his family posed no threat to the U.S. government. Two others, Minori Yasui of Hood River, Oregon, and Fred Korematsu of Oakland, California, also resisted the curfew order  All three men took their battle to the U.S. Supreme Court and all three lost.

President Gerald R. Ford issued an official apology for Executive Order 9066 in 1976, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the trio of dissenters received justice in the form of overturned or vacated convictions.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Hirabayashi’s story came to life. Lori and I and four friends saw the play “Hold These Truths,” produced by Portland Center Stage at The Armory in Northwest Portland. It was a one-man play, a 90-minute performance with no intermission, and it was splendid.

Ryun Yu was marvelous as Gordon Hirabayashi. From the opening scene to the last, Yu channeled the intelligence, humor, wisdom and fortitude that characterized the young man who stood by his principles in the face of racial animosity.

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After the war, Gordon Hirabayashi continued his education at the University of Washington, earning his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D degrees in sociology  .

Simply by donning one pair of eyeglasses versus another, and by wearing a sport coat or a cardigan sweater, a bow tie or a necktie, Yu seamlessly moved in and out of time, with only two wooden chairs as props. He drew us into his character and into his lonely fight against an executive order that led to the forced removal of nearly 120,000 people from their homes.

An estimated two-thirds of those who were rounded up were U.S. citizens, including our friend Nancy, whose family was among the 9,000 people sent to live behind barbed wire at the Minidoka internment camp in south central Idaho. She and her husband attended the play with us.

In the program notes, Director Chris Coleman said of Hirabayashi: “His story is one of immense courage and moral conviction, as stirring as it is infuriating.”

So true. And to that, I would add “inspiring.”

I can only admire the sense of right and wrong that compelled a young man, then 25, to defy a wartime order that sent people to camps in 10 states across the country.

Decades later, hindsight allows us to condemn the camps as a horrible civil rights violation.

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 Gordon Hirabayashi taught at the American University in Beirut, the American University in Cairo and in Canada at the University of Edmonton, where he lived.

The U.S. government eventually paid reparations to those who were imprisoned. And all three of the wartime resisters received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States — Korematsu in 1998, and the other two posthumously in 2012 and 2013.

In a 2012 obituary that followed Hirabayashi’s death at age 93, The New York Times noted, “The Hirabayashi, Yasui and Korematsu cases were revisited in the 1980s after Peter Irons, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, found documents indicating that the federal government, in coming before the Supreme Court, had suppressed its own finding that Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were not, in fact, threats to national security.”

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One of 432 World War II internment barracks that were located at a county fairground and returned to Minidoka, about 130 miles southeast of Boise, Idaho. (Photo by Aki Mori)

It was somehow fitting that Lori and I would see this play one day after we had participated in a Saturday night discussion of what the American Dream means to us.

With the presidential election now only a week away, the timing also could not have been better as a reminder of what harm can come from demonizing an entire class of people based on their race, religion or national origin. We all know which one of the candidates has singled out Muslims, Syrian refugees and Mexican immigrants as threats to the U.S.

The play continues through November 13. If you live in the Portland area, I urge you to go see it. Ticket information is here.

Photographs: Densho Encyclopedia

Related reading from Voices of August: American internment in the shadows of Yellowstone by Aki Mori; My visit to Heart Mountain by Midori Mori.

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