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Defending Nikkei: Hugh MacBeth and the Japanese American Internment

In the account below University of Quebec at Montreal historian Greg Robinson describes the activies of Hugh MacBeth, a black Los Angeles attorney, on behalf of the Japanese American citizens and resident aliens incarcerated during World War II. 

Hugh MacBeth, Sr., 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.  MacBeth maintained close contacts with Japanese Americans. He settled in LA’s Jefferson Park, then largely Japanese. MacBeth’s son Hugh, Jr., who later became his law partner, recalled that as a child he attended Japanese school with his Nisei pals after school, since otherwise he had nobody in the neighborhood to play with. There Hugh, Jr. studied the Japanese language and Judo (and also absorbed community prejudices against Chinese and Filipinos!). Meanwhile, the MacBeth family informally took in an orphaned Nisei (second generation Japanese) 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 (first generation Japanese) rounded up by the government during December and interned in Missoula, Montana. Following interviews with the internees’ families, he discovered that those taken were prosperous farmers, and that there was no evidence of sabotage. He swiftly concluded that the removal was engineered by white agricultural interests anxious to grab the Issei farmers’ land. Outraged, MacBeth 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

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