The Great Unknown & the Unknown Great: African American Attorney Was Defender of Japanese Americans During World War II

The following was published in the printed program for the 44th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage (2013). It was reprinted from the article, “The Great Unknown & the Unknown Great: African American Attorney was Defender of Japanese Americans During World War II,” Nichi Bei Times Weekly, June 7, 2007.


Hugh MacBeth, Sr. (pictured above), an African American attorney from Los Angeles, is largely forgotten today, but he deserves commemoration as an outstanding defender of Japanese Americans during World War II. He settled in Los Angeles’ Jefferson Park, then largely Japanese and he attended Japanese school with his Nisei pals, learning the Japanese language and judo (and also absorbed community prejudices against Chinese and Filipinos!). And the MacBeth family informally took in an orphaned boy, Kenji Horita.

In early January 1942, shortly after Pearl Harbor, MacBeth travelled to Guadalupe and Santa Barbara, California to investigate the cases of Issei rounded up by the government. He discovered that those taken were prosperous farmers, and that there was no evidence of sabotage. He concluded that the removal was engineered by white agricultural interests anxious to grab the Issei farmers’ land. Outraged, he turned to organizing support for Japanese Americans among liberal and church groups. Thanks to MacBeth, the California Race Relations Commission and the Santa Barbara Minister’s Alliance would become the only two Southern California organizations to officially oppose evacuation.

MacBeth simultaneously organized efforts nationwide. He corresponded with Socialist leader Norman Thomas, who used the information MacBeth provided in newspaper articles and radio speeches denouncing Executive Order 9066. MacBeth later co-signed Thomas’s pamphlet, “Democracy and the Japanese Americans.” The pamphlet—widely distributed by the JACL—denounced the government’s policy as “totalitarian justice” and called for an end to evacuation and for reparations.’

The announcement of Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942 that would remove Japanese Americans from the West Coast was a blow to MacBeth. Three days later he sent President Roosevelt a telegram, asking him, now that his order had allayed fears of sabotage, to permit “liberty-loving Japanese” to resume their agricultural activities “under military surveillance and with government assistance.” Meanwhile, he spoke privately of his grief at families being “torn up by the roots” and sent off from their homes “they know not where.” He wrote General John DeWitt, military executor of the order, to propose that loyal farmers be permitted to form cooperatives and establish colonies in Utah. (The plan was designed by Hi Korematsu, whose brother, Fred, would soon challenge evacuation.) MacBeth proceeded to lecture DeWitt that removal reflected “general and deep seated American racial prejudice against Orientals and particularly against Japanese.” DeWitt did not reply.

MacBeth visited the Santa Anita Assembly Center with his wife and brother to see friends and collect information on conditions. Shortly afterwards, he travelled to Washington to brief Justice Department officials on Japanese Americans (using a White House cook as a back channel, Macbeth attempted, without success, to secure a meeting with President Roosevelt to lobby for an executive order making racial discrimination a military offense).

MacBeth kept fighting. Upon returning to California he joined ACLU attorney A.L. Wirin in defending Ernest and Toki Wakayama. Ernest was a union official, World War I veteran and officer of the American Legion, while Toki was a Nisei from California. The Wakayamas filed habeas corpus petitions asserting that there was no military necessity for evacuation and that DeWitt’s exclusion order was arbitrary and a violation of rights. In October 1942, a three-judge panel heard the petitions. In his supporting brief and in oral argument, MacBeth charged that race-based confinement constituted unconstitutional discrimination. On February 4, 1943, the judges granted a writ of habeas corpus. It came too late—worn down by violence and ostracism at Manzanar, the Wakayamas had withdrawn their suit and requested repatriation to Japan.

Despite this defeat MacBeth continued to defend the JA community he knew so well:

  • He repeatedly wrote WRA Director Dillon Myer with advice.
  • At a public forum in Los Angeles in April 1943, he bravely spoke out in favor of letting Japanese Americans return to the West Coast.
  • In 1944, he signed the JACL brief in the historic case of Korematsu v. United States.
  • He travelled to the Amache internment camp to counsel families of Nisei draft resisters.
  • When Chiyoko Sakamoto, the first Nisei woman to be admitted to the California Bar, returned from camp in mid-1945 and was unable to find work. MacBeth hired her as his associate.
  • In 1945, MacBeth, his son Hugh, Jr. and JACL counsel A.L. Wirin fought for the case of Fred and Kojiro Oyama, challenging California’s Alien Land Act which prevented Japanese immigrants from owning land.

In February 1945, People v. Oyama, was argued in the San Diego County Superior Court. Wirin and McBeth argued that alien land laws were out of date and penalized the defendants solely because of race. The judge ruled against the Oyama’s, the decision was appealed and ultimately reached the Supreme Court. In January 1948, victory was granted to the Japanese couple. Oyama v. California not only ended all enforcement of the Alien Land Act, but furnished an important precedent for later rulings striking down racial segregation.

Hugh MacBeth, an unknown hero for the Japanese American community, died in 1956.

Greg Robinson, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at l’Université du Québec à Montréal, a French-language institution in Montreal, Canada, and a researcher at that university’s Center for United States Studies and Chaire de Recherche sur Immigration, Ethnicité et Citoyenneté. A specialist in North American Ethnic Studies and U.S. Political History, Robinson teaches courses on African American history, Twentieth-Century U.S. Foreign Policy, American Immigration History, and visible minorities/racial groups, among others.


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