Japanese-American hero dies at 93

January 3, 2012 9:35:34 PM PST
A Japanese-American who can be considered a civil rights pioneer has died. He resisted the World War II internment camps. Gordon Hirabayashi was 93 years old and ABC7 looks at how this man helped change history.

In the 1940s with the war, there were troubling times for Japanese and Japanese-Americans when they were sent to internment camps. But in Seattle, Hirabayashi was a University of Washington senior who refused to get on the bus.

"Gordon believed it was wrong to single him and other Japanese-Americans out on the basis of ancestry," said Karen Kai, who was on one of Hirabayashi's defense teams.

He called it racial discrimination and turned himself into the FBI and was convicted. He appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it ruled against him. Then came a bizarre twist.

He would get a laugh about what happened with his conviction. He was sentenced to 90 days in prison, but asked to spend the time in a work camp in Arizona. The court said OK, but it had no money to get him there, so he hitchhiked all the way from Washington to Arizona. When he got there, the paperwork wasn't ready so they told him to go to a movie and dinner before returning the work camp to serve his time.

But in the 1980s, new evidence uncovered blatant government misconduct. Hirabayashi and two others went to court to challenge the original ruling. The case was retried and in 1987 his conviction was overturned.

"Gordon was always very modest and I don't think he viewed this as an act of heroism. It was an act of conscious," said Kai.

In Japantown, Hirabayashi's story is on a wall of fame as a tribute to a man who helped change history. What Hirabayashi did, has made a difference in people's lives today.

"To instill in others that feeling he had in his heart that you must stand up when there is something wrong," said Kai.

Hirabayashi died on Monday and 10 hours later his former wife passed away.