William Hohri, A Memorial Tribute
William Hohri is an American hero. His life work was the repairing of America, and he succeeded by leading one of the most radical social justice movements culminating in redress almost half a century later for Japanese-American survivors of the illegal and unconstitutional concentration camps set up at the outbreak of WWII. Bill was 14 years old when he and his family were locked up at the Manzanar Camp in eastern California.
Bill did not forget that humiliating experience. That was still in the background when his local church in Chicago elected him a member of the regional body, the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church. At these annual meetings Bill began to find his voice on social issues. This was in the late sixties, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the American war in Vietnam. Bill chaired the Peace Division of the Conference Board of Christian Social Concerns, which I chaired and he also attended Renewal Caucus meetings where he sharpened his skills in political debate and in organizing around justice issues. Later he told me these experiences helped prepare him for the redress fight which
opened up for him just a few years later.
Bill had quick intelligence, an indomitable spirit and an uncommon courage. In the words of our long- time colleague, Rev. Gregory Dell, Bill was “in life, a giant of faithfulness and persistence.” I remember joining Bill, Yuriko, and their young daughters, Sasha and Sylvia for a car ride to Milwaukee to join an open housing march led by the local civil rights leader, Father Groppi. The marchers were predominantly African American. Along the route crowds of Caucasians shouted at us all manner of epithets, including “White Power.” Getting exasperated, Bill shouted back at them, “Yellow Power!” At Bill’s invitation I was privileged to join a team of Methodists, Bishop Jesse DeWitt and Revs. Martha Coursey and Gregory Dell, in testifying at the Chicago hearings of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in late 1981. We Chicago area Methodists were proud of Bill and honored to be part of his national effort. Later, on one of his many speaking tours, as Chair of the National Council for Japanese American Redress, Bill did a radio show in Indiana. After his presentation he took calls from the radio audience and one male caller blurted out: “You sound like a Jap lover.” Bill was so stunned he was speechless, something unusual for him by this time. The next Sunday he reported to his congregation, Parish of the Holy Covenant, on his week’s tour and confessed that he should have responded to the caller, “Yes, I loved my Jap mother, my Jap father and the rest of my Jap family.”
The movement had highs and lows, but through it all Bill had the vision, courage and perseverance to carry on against unexpected opposition and tremendous odds, leading to victory, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, offering $20,000 to each internee of Japanese descent. The Act was signed ironically by President Ronald Reagan in August, 1988. To complete the legislation, in October, 1993, President Bill Clinton sent a letter of apology to Japanese American internment survivors along with their checks. William Hohri’s imprint was in that letter and on those checks. He was and is an American hero, a faithful Christian, and a friend of all peace-loving, freedom-loving people in the world. Thanks be to God for this good man.
The Rev. Martin Deppe, United Methodist Church, retired
November 18, 2010