It's Martin Luther King Day in the U.S. Although he is a man worthy of much honor, today I will share about a perhaps lesser-known, but also heroic man:
It can summon the deepest part of us to respond to a message based upon a universal theme.
The one-man stage play Hold These Truths did just that for me not too long ago.
And while this stage play has finished its run (for now), the screen play is available here. You'll miss some of the drama, but you will be able to lean into the words and phrases better. Make no mistake; it is profound.
Set during WWII in the Western U.S., Hold These Truths chronicled the life of Gordon Hirabayashi, a nissei, or second-generation Japanese American, attending the University of Washington at the time.
A committed Quaker upholding views of pacifism and non-violence, Hirabayashi refused to obey Executive Order 9066, also known as the Exclusion Order. This was the order designating all Japanese in America as “resident aliens,” sending them first to “Assembly Centers” and then onto “Relocation Centers” for the duration of the war.
The U.S. went on to intern between 110,000 – 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry – two-thirds of them U.S. citizens – during WWII.
Here's Why Gordon's Story is So Relevant to Our Times
Gordon’s poignant story, at times heart-wretching, at times humorous, draws us in. It is the story of belonging – and exclusion. A story of the ugly underbelly of racism mixed with assumed privileges based upon false pretenses – skin color and ethnicity.
Hirabayashi’s case made it to the Supreme Court, but at the time it ruled against him. He was ordered to report to a detention center in Arizona. But the government couldn’t afford to transport him from his native Washington State, so he chose to hitchhike.
When he eventually arrived, the officers of the prison could not locate the necessary paperwork to take him in, so they encouraged him to go out, get dinner and catch a movie, and then return later to report. (They finally found that paperwork.)
Later, after the U.S. effectively ended the Pacific War with Japan, it then turned around to draft some 26,000 U.S. citizens of Japanese descent – the very ones they had interned – to join the war efforts in Europe.
Gordon’s Quaker worldview – espousing that war and conflict are against God’s wishes – led to his decision to again protest. For this, he was once again imprisoned, this time at at McNeil Island Penitentiary off the coast of Seattle.
His protest revolved primarily around the injustice of an American government ordering those with Japanese ancestry to renounce allegiance to the emperor of Japan. He argued this was racially discriminatory; no other groups – including those of German and Italian ancestry – were asked to renounce allegiance to their leaders.
Eventually, Gordon was exonerated.
A Labor of Love: Bringing Gordon's Story to the World
More than 40 years later, in 1987, a political science professor from the University of California San Diego uncovered documents revealing evidence of government misconduct in 1942, leading to the wrongful conviction of Hirabayashi. Essentially, the government at the time knew there was no military justification for the Exclusion Order, but it held back that evidence from the Supreme Court.
Gordon’s case was reheard by the federal court and, in the same year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted him a writ of coram nobis, overturning his criminal conviction.
During the interim years, Hirabayashi went on to obtain his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Washington. After teaching in Beirut, Lebanon and Cairo, Egypt, he settled into a position at the University of Alberta, Canada, where he worked until his retirement in the early 1980’s.
Gordon passed away in early 2012, but he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by President Barak Obama that same year, after his story became more well known.
Why We Need This Now More than Ever
It’s clear, given the current climate of distrust and swelling racism today in the U.S. and around the world, the message of Gordon Hirabayashi’s life takes on new relevance.
We must ask ourselves how we can harbor superiority or hatred in our hearts simply because of skin color, ethnicity, or background. And we must also question the moves of a government to limit the basic freedoms of American citizens who are part of currently targeted groups.
As a white American, it would be easy for me to dismiss such prejudice exists. But I am friends from many walks of life, many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and I hear things. They share with me ways they’ve faced discrimination and wrongful treatment – even in California, apparently the bastion of tolerance.
I also understand these challenges from the perspective of being a woman. I have faced discrimination based on my gender several times in my life. Although I would say I am grateful because, generally, the men in my life have been thoughtful, quality people who believe in me, I have still encountered gender-bias at times.
Ultimately, I must have faith like Hirabayashi: “I seek to live as though what ought to be, is.”
We cannot change others; we can only change ourselves. And even then, sometimes we fail. But we must cling to the hope of a better tomorrow. Especially for our children.
For that is what wakes us up each morning and allows us to be better today than we were yesterday.
How – if at all – is Gordon Hirabayashi's story your story?
Image credit (second): TheatreWorks Silicon Valley poster
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