President Obama with Susan Carnahan, Gordon Hirabayashi's widow. (White House)

Rafu Staff and Wire Reports

WASHINGTON  — Gordon Hirabayashi was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama on Tuesday in a ceremony at the East Room of the White House.

Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012)

Obama, in awarding Hirabayashi the nation’s highest civilian honor, said that the country was better off because citizens like Hirabayashi were willing to take a stand. Hirabayashi, who passed away in January at the age of 93, openly defied the forced relocation and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“Gordon Hirabayashi knew what it was like to stand alone. As a student at the University of Washington, Gordon was one of only three Japanese Americans to defy the executive order that forced thousands of families to leave their homes, their jobs, and their civil rights behind and move to internment camps during World War II.  He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, and he lost,” Obama said.

Hirabayashi appealed his conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against him in 1943. In 1983, his case was reopened along with those of Fred Korematsu and Minoru Yasui, who had also challenged the constitutionality of the government’s treatment of Japanese Americans. In 1987, Hirabayashi’s conviction was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

“In Gordon’s words, ‘It takes a crisis to tell us that unless citizens are willing to stand up for the [Constitution], it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.’ And this country is better off because of citizens like him who are willing to stand up,” said Obama.

Hirabayashi was represented by his wife, Susan Carnahan. In the audience were his son, Jay; members of his legal team, Rod Kawakami and Kathryn Bannai, co-lead counsels, and Karen Narasaki (also former executive director of the Asian American Justice Center); and Floyd Mori, JACL national executive director emeritus.

Sketching impressive contributions to society in intensely personal terms, Obama presented the Medal of Freedom to more than a dozen political and cultural greats Tuesday, including Israel’s President Shimon Peres (who was unable to attend), rocker Bob Dylan, astronaut John Glenn, and novelist Toni Morrison.

In awarding America’s highest civilian honor to 13 recipients, living and dead, the president took note of the overflow crowd in the East Room and said it was “a testament to how cool this group is. Everybody wanted to check ’em out.”

Obama then spoke of his personal connection to a number of this year’s recipients, calling them “my heroes individually.”

“I know how they impacted my life,” the president said. He recalled reading Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” in his youth and “not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be and how to think.”

In college days, Obama said, he listened to Dylan and recalled “my world opening up, because he captured something about this country that was so vital.” Dylan’s appearance drew the biggest whoops from the crowd, and he dressed for the event — sunglasses, bow tie and black suit embellished with shiny buckles and buttons.

From left: Susan Carnahan, Bob Dylan, President Obama. (White House)

Obama also recalled reading about union path-breaker Dolores Huerta when he was starting out as a community organizer. She co-founded the National Farmworkers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers of America.

“Everybody on this stage has marked my life in profound ways,” he said.

Obama added that Pat Summitt, who led the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team to more NCAA Final Four appearances than any other team, had helped pave the way for his two daughters, “who are tall and gifted.”

“They’re standing up straight and diving after loose balls and feeling confident and strong,” he said. “I understand that the impact that these people have had extends beyond me. It will continue for generations to come.”

The Medal of Freedom is presented to people who have made meritorious contributions to the national interests of the United States, to world peace or to other significant endeavors.

Other honorees:

– Jan Karski, a resistance fighter against the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II. He died in 2000.

– Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the first woman to hold the job.

– William Foege, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who helped lead the effort to eradicate smallpox.

– John Paul Stevens, former Supreme Court justice.

– Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts, who died in 1927.

– John Doar, who handled civil rights cases as assistant attorney general in the 1960s.

The Polish government later objected to Obama’s use of the term “Polish death camp” in his introduction of Karski. The White House said that the president misspoke and meant to say “Nazi death camps in Poland.”

CAPAC Comments

The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus praised Obama’s selection of Hirabayashi.

“At a time when Japanese Americans were suffering from discrimination and internment at the hands of their own government, Gordon Hirabayashi stood up to challenge an unjust law and took his case all the way to the Supreme Court,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-El Monte), CAPAC chair. “It wasn’t until decades later that justice was finally served, and that was only as a result of his tireless efforts and unflinching faith in the protections of the U.S. Constitution. The American people owe Mr. Hirabayashi a debt of gratitude for his principled opposition to a harmful and misguided law, and I commend President Obama for recognizing his tremendous contributions by posthumously awarding him the Medal of Freedom today.”

Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose), CAPAC chair emeritus, added, “I extend my deepest congratulations to the family of Gordon Hirabayashi in posthumously receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Gordon’s dedication to the most cherished principles of American democracy created an iconic moment in the history of the civil rights movement. His defiance of the incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans, an incarceration which included myself when I was less than one year old, is an indelible reminder that we must never let ‘war hysteria, racial prejudice, and a failure of political leadership’ derail the continuing mission of America — to live as one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Gordon Hirabayashi’s legacy is a lodestar for every American — inspiring us to work tirelessly to forge a more perfect union.”

Gordon Hirabayashi's Presidential Medal of Freedom and accompanying citation. (Jay Hirabayashi)

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Harvard graduate can’t make this kind of mistake.

    Reply to President of the USA Obama Film designed to counter misconceptions about the existence of „Polish death camps” took place on the country’s national day, November 11. The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent the film Upside Down to all the country’s embassies and consulates. The title refers to the total reversal of roles—the roles of perpetrator and victim—in this case. Upside Down will be shown on the educational channel used by schools in Canada. TVP Info will show it in Poland in the near future. Upside Down will also be distributed for free with the Toronto Star, a newspaper where the phrase “Polish concentration camps” appeared particularly frequently.

    During a presentation for journalists in Warsaw, Andrzej Sadoś from the Minitry of Foreign Affairs stressed that the origins of the concept of “Polish death camps” or “Polish concentration camps” lie in profound historical ignorance, especially among the young. He noted that the film contains interviews with students from elite schools who are completely unembarrassed by their lack of knowledge. They cannot explain who the Nazis were. When asked who built concentration camps in Poland, they reply: “They’re Polish camps—so, it was the Poles.”.

    The daily Helsingin Sanomat, 27th January 2005, article by H. Tulonen headlined Finnish swastikas dont trouble Jews contained the words Polish concentration camps. Protest of the Polish embassy addressed to the author and the chief editor of the paper. Premier Vanhanen also advised (through the government spokesman and adviser of the parliamentary speaker). Polish expat organizations intervened. The paper expressed regrets and published a correction the next day.


    The daily Le Progres (Lyon), 15th January 2005, a series of articles following
    a visit by local youth to Auschwitz, claiming that the first camps were established by Poles in 1940 and that the Nazis found favorable conditions in Poland for the development of the camps. Intervention by the Polish consul-general in Lyon. On 27th January the paper carried a correction, explaining that a linguistic error had occurred.

    TV channel France 3, 25th January 2005, current affairs show France Europe Express, leading journalist S. July, known for his supportive attitude to the enlargement of the EU and Poland, used the term Polish camps of annihilation. An intervention by the Polish embassy resulted in an apology and assurances that a linguistic lapse was involved.

    TF1 (main French public TV channel) , 27th January 2005, in his account of the ceremonies at Auschwitz, a reporter used the words Polish camps. After

    a protest by the Polish embassy, conveyed by phone, the information was corrected before the end of the broadcast, with an explanation that the camps had been built by Nazis in occupied Poland.

    LCI news channel. 27th January 2005, the caption under a picture contained the words Polish camp. After a phone intervention by the embassy the caption was corrected.