History, Japanese American

Gordon Hirabayashi Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

Gordon Hirabayashi, center, in 1999 at the former prison camp in Arizona where he was held for about a year. The camp was later renamed for him. Courtesy of the Associated Press (AP)

By: Aaron Sayama, Summer 2012 Intern

The Medal of Freedom is the highest honor awarded to civilians in the United States. It was established in 1963 by President Kennedy and is presented to those who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

One of the honorees this year, Gordon Hirabayashi, was a 24-year-old student attending the University of Washington in 1942 when President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, sending tens of thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry to relocation (internment) camps during WWII. Defying those orders, Hirabayashi turned himself into the FBI claiming the order was discriminatory.

Hirabayashi was convicted by a U.S. Federal Court for defying the exclusion order and violating curfew. His fight would take him all the way to the Supreme Court, where his conviction was upheld and he was imprisoned in 1943. After the war, Hirabayashi earned a doctorate in sociology and became a noted professor and committed civil rights activist. In 1987, his  conviction was finally overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He passed away on January 2, 2012 and was awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously.

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