Hugh Macbeth Jr, who died Sept. 14, 2019 at the age of 100, was an extraordinary figure, both in who he was and in what he represented. On a personal level, he was a distinguished lawyer and judge — a prime member of a generation of African Americans who achieved mainstream success, despite the formidable obstacles in their path. On a symbolic level, Hugh bore the historical legacy of the remarkable Macbeth family, and most notably that of the father whose name he shared.
For Japanese Americans, the name Macbeth stands as a title of particular honor, given the heroic support and friendship that Hugh Sr. provided the community, and that his son then carried on and extended.
Hugh Macbeth Jr. was born in Los Angeles on June 21, 1919, to Edwina and Hugh Ellwood Macbeth. Hugh Macbeth Sr. was the product of an elite black family from Charleston, S,C., and the son of Arthur Macbeth, an early African American photographer. After graduating from Harvard University’s law school, Hugh Sr. spent some years in Baltimore as a muckraking journalist, then moved to Los Angeles in 1914. There he established a law partnership with his brother Gobert, and made a name for himself as an independent-minded attorney who represented white clients as well as blacks.
Hugh Macbeth Sr. settled his new family in the Jefferson Park district of Los Angeles, then a largely Japanese area. Hugh Jr. later recalled that as a child he attended Japanese school with his Nisei friends, since otherwise he would have no other children in the neighborhood to play with once the regular school day finished. There he studied Japanese language and judo — and also absorbed some endemic community prejudices against Chinese and Filipinos.
Meanwhile, the Macbeth family informally took in an orphaned Nisei boy, Kenji Horita, who celebrated all his birthdays with his adopted family and established a lasting bond with Mrs. Macbeth. After graduating high school in Los Angeles, Hugh Jr. attended UCLA, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In fall 1941, Hugh Jr. enrolled at UC Berkeley’s law school. There he studied with the well-known legal scholar Dudley McGovney, and became active with Berkeley’s International House. In 1943, Gobert Macbeth passed away. In 1944, after completing law school Hugh Jr. was invited to return to Los Angeles and serve as his father’s law partner. He was admitted to the California bar in January 1945.
It was a crucial moment. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Hugh Sr. had thrown himself into defending Japanese Americans, in the belief that mass removal was a classic case of official racism. During spring 1942 he had appealed to West Coast Commanding Gen. John De Witt not to institute mass exclusion, visited Japanese American friends confined at Santa Anita, and corresponded extensively with Norman Thomas, the U.S. Socialist Party leader who was the only national political leader to oppose Executive Order 9066. It was Macbeth who furnished Thomas with the bulk of his information about the conditions facing West Coast Japanese Americans.
Macbeth had even travelled to Washington, D.C. and attempted to secure a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to plead for justice (according to Hugh Jr., his father used a White House cook as an attempted back channel to the Oval Office). Most of all, in partnership with ACLU lawyer A.L. Wirin, Hugh Macbeth Sr. had joined in legal cases challenging Executive Order 9066 and legal discrimination. He helped argue the habeas corpus petitions on behalf of Ernest Kinzo and Toki Wakayama, who protested their confinement in camps.
When the Hirabayashi and Korematsu cases were heard before the U.S. Supreme Court, Macbeth signed the JACL’s brief on behalf of the defendants. He meanwhile helped draft the JACL’s amicus brief in Regan v. King, a U.S. Appeals Court case in which nativist groups challenged Nisei voting and citizenship rights on racial grounds.
Once Hugh Jr. became a partner in his father’s firm, he began work with Japanese Americans as well. In 1945, he was active in People v. Oyama, a California Superior Court case in which California’s government sought to seize the farm property of the Oyama family under the Alien Land Act. Hugh Sr. joined A.L. Wirin in presenting the case that the Alien Land Act was racist and unconstitutional, and distinguished himself in oral argument. After the Oyamas lost their case, they appealed in federal court, and eventually the case (renamed Oyama v. California) was taken up to the U.S. Supreme Court. While the Macbeth firm withdrew from the case, they remained vitally interested in it.
It was Hugh Jr. (taking a tip from his old professor Dudley McGovney) who proposed to Wirin what became the appellate strategy, namely that the case be argued on the basis of the law’s discriminatory impact on American citizens of Japanese ancestry. In January 1948, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Oyamas. Their victory not only halted enforcement of the Alien Land Act against Japanese Americans, but established the legal grounds for future Supreme Court civil rights cases.
In addition to his work on the Oyama case, Hugh Jr. found other ways to support Japanese Americans. In 1946, he signed the ACLU amicus brief in the California Supreme Court case of Issei fisherman Torao Takahashi, who had been denied a state fishing license on racial grounds. In 1947, he and his father hired Chiyoko Sakamoto, the first Nisei woman admitted to the California Bar, as an associate in their firm. Hugh Jr. even sat for a portrait photo by the esteemed Nikkei photographer Toyo Miyatake!
In the years after World War II, Hugh Macbeth Jr. left his father’s firm and built a prosperous law practice. During these years, he married and had two children, Hugh III and Douglas. He also took on responsibility for aiding his mother, especially after Hugh Sr. died in 1956.
While his direct involvement with Japanese American legal cases wound down after 1949, he maintained close connections with Nikkei communities. During the 1950s Hugh Jr. and his son Douglas became active participants in a social group of Japanese American fathers and sons. Hugh Jr. was pleased to connect with a circle of Nisei friends, as he had in his childhood years, and in the years that followed he attended events and went on several vacation trips with his new buddies.
In 1975, Hugh was named as a commissioner and judge on the Los Angeles Superior Court. He remained on the bench for a number of years, and even presided over the well-publicized divorce proceedings of boxer Mike Tyson and actress Robin Givens. Following his retirement, Hugh Jr. moved to San Francisco, where he lived with his second wife Maxine (the two had first met decades before, at International House, but did not marry until 1994!).
In his later years, Hugh Jr. was honored for his and his father’s outstanding wartime support of Japanese Americans. In 2009, for example, he was invited to be candle lighter at a Day of Remembrance ceremony in San Francisco. He was similarly gratified when the organizers of the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage paid tribute to Hugh Macbeth Sr. in 2013, and two years later when he was commemorated at the Los Angeles DOR. Filmmaker Jeffrey Gee Chin and the Little Tokyo Historical Society consulted him as part of their long-term research project on Nikkei editor Sei Fujii and his prewar collaboration with Hugh Macbeth Sr.