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Gordon Hirabayashi: Civil Disobedience and the Constitution

colored lithograph work featuring a man of japanese american descent on the right side, a star in the middle, and the supreme court building on the left side with the american flag in the background
Roger Shimomura, Gordon Hirabayashi, American Patriot, 2015, color lithograph, 13 5/8 x 17 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2022.17. © Roger Shimomura. Photography by Edward C. Robison III.
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“When my case was before the Supreme Court in 1941, I fully expected that as a citizen, the Constitution would protect me. Surprisingly, even though I lost, I did not abandon my beliefs and my values. And I never look at my case as just my own or just as a Japanese-American case. It is an American case, with principles that affect the fundamental human rights of all Americans.” —Gordon Hirabayashi

We the People: The Radical Notion of Democracy features a color lithograph by Roger Shimomura entitled Gordon Hirabayashi, American Patriot (2015).

Shimomura’s work focuses on American sociologist and professor Gordon Hirabayashi’s civil disobedience in the face of unjust laws. Hirabayashi defied the federal government’s internment of Japanese Americans during World War II (1939-1945) because he believed it violated his constitutional rights.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted increasingly discriminatory executive orders against Japanese Americans in the name of protecting the nation against espionage and sabotage. Three months after the attack, Roosevelt imposed a curfew along the West Coast for people of Japanese ancestry. Then, in May 1942, the US government forcibly relocated more than 100,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants to inland detention centers, two of which were based in Arkansas.

Hirabayashi strongly believed that these orders were unconstitutional, as they targeted only Americans of Japanese origin. He said, “it was something I couldn’t accept myself and still maintain an honest feeling that I was a proud American citizen. I wasn’t. Unless I took a stand.” Because of this belief, he did not obey the curfew. He refused when he was required to register at the internment processing center and was arrested. Arguing that these directives were racially discriminatory, Hirabayashi took the case to court. A federal jury heard his case in Seattle, where he was found guilty of violating curfew and internment orders.

a black and white photograph portrait of Gordon Hirabayashi
Gordon Hirabayashi. Image courtesy of the Korematsu family. Wikimedia Commons.

He then took his case to the Supreme Court in Hirabayashi v. United States (1943). The court needed to decide if the president’s executive orders discriminated against Americans and resident aliens of Japanese descent. If so, this order would violate the Fifth Amendment, which affirmed that “no person shall be […] deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

The court found the president’s orders to be constitutional. They focused primarily on curfew and declined to rule on the issue of forced internment. Chief Justice Stone justified racial discrimination since “in time of war residents having ethnic affiliations with an invading enemy may be a greater source of danger than those of a different ancestry.”

In December 1944, another Japanese American named Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu contested the president’s executive orders. Korematsu v. United States was brought to the Supreme court, once again arguing that forced internment was unconstitutional. The court majority ruled that the internment of Japanese Americans was a “martial necessity arising from the danger of espionage and sabotage.” One of three dissenting opinions, Justice Jackson argued that forced internment legitimized racism, violating the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment.

It was not until the 1980s that the courts revisited these rulings after a professor from the University of California, San Diego, found that the federal government suppressed its findings—that Japanese Americans were not a threat to national security. Based on this evidence, a federal appeals court overturned Hirabayashi’s conviction in 1987. Hirabayashi would posthumously receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 for his efforts to end Japanese Americans’ forced relocation and internment.

colored lithograph work featuring a man of japanese american descent on the right side, a star in the middle, and the supreme court building on the left side with the american flag in the background
Roger Shimomura, Gordon Hirabayashi, American Patriot, 2015, color lithograph, 13 5/8 x 17 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2022.17. © Roger Shimomura. Photography by Edward C. Robison III.

Notice the imagery in Shimomura’s lithograph. Beyond the portrait of Hirabayashi, there are depictions of the American flag, the Supreme Court, and his Presidential Medal of Freedom. These objects represent his story and heroism. What would you do if you found a law to be unconstitutional? How do you stand up for what you believe?

See this work in our temporary exhibition We the People: The Radical Notion of Democracy, on view at Crystal Bridges through January 2, 2023.