50th Manzanar Pilgrimage remembers America’s jailing of Japanese Americans during WWII
Approximately 2,000 visitors attended the 50th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage held on Saturday, April 27, to celebrate the fifty years since the very first Pilgrimage in December 1969, when a small group of activists began organizing an effort of that would change how history viewed the incarceration of between 110,000 and 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom lived on the Pacific coast and were American citizens.
The Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s would bring an awareness of the injustice and rewrite a history that had been largely ignored until the Manzanar Committee was formed with a two-fold focus on education and to establish Manzanar as a California State Historical Landmark. It has enjoyed remarkable success.
The Manzanar Pilgrimage is a blend of politics, religion, goodwill and fellowship.
The 2019 Pilgrimage master of ceremonies, Warren Furutani, was one of the original activists and founders of the Manzanar Committee. He told the gathering he and the late-Victor Shibata, whom he characterized jokingly as an “original gangster,” were inspired by the marches of farmworkers in California and poor people in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s to create awareness of injustices. They discarded the idea of a 220-mile-march to Manzanar as being impractical, and then they hit on the idea of an annual pilgrimage.
Furutani noted that many family members incarcerated in the concentration camps were largely silent about them, but the topic would quietly come up at family gatherings. It was, as he described it, “a shared touchstone experience.”
Along with other young activists, he wanted to change that, and the Pilgrimage was a path towards that goal. In 1969 the site was in very poor condition. There was little left onsite other than the old gymnasium and the cemetery monument, which he referred to as a “sacred place.” He learned that Buddhist priests and Christian ministers had been visiting the cemetery for 75 years, ever since the camp closed in 1944, to honor the bodies that remained buried there.
Bruce Embrey with the Manzanar Committee, and the son of Sue Kunitomi Embrey, one of the original Pilgrimage organizers, echoed Furutani’s comments, “For decades, no one spoke of the camp experience.” They first began with “talking and sharing the story, which led to healing within the Japanese-American community.” Later would come the “redress movement,” accompanied by an official apology from the U.S. government and payment of $20,000 to survivors of the camps. Then the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 acknowledged that the injustices of the camps were driven by “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
Because of their own successes, Embry said that the Manzanar Committee is committed to “calling out all injustice,” which is why they are fighting alongside, and supporting Muslims to counter the widespread legal and political attacks that are targeting them by “fabricated hysteria.” They are involved as well in the issue of immigration from Latin America, which has resulted in children being separated from the parents lies at the border, and supporting Native Americans in their fight to preserve their land and sacred places, and provide relief to African Americans who have been harmed by racial profiling.
Bruce Embrey finished by saying that, “We must speak out for equal justice under the law for everyone, no matter who they are or where they come from.”
Following Embrey’s remarks, Nihad Awad, a founder with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, spoke, stressing the “need for vigilance in the face of discrimination,” noting that “An attack on one community is an attack on all of us.”
Jim Matsuoka was awarded the 2019 Sue Kunitomi Embry Award. He was only 7 when he was sent to Manzanar during the war. He was one of the original group of activists that made the first trip to the Manzanar cemetery in 1969.
Poignantly, Matsuoka said that “We came to remember what our people had suffered, and not forget.” Of the cemetery he said, “When people ask me how many people are buried here, I say a whole generation. A whole generation who were inheritors of this legacy of fear never left this place, but whose souls are buried here.”
At the end of the “official” Pilgrimage Program, everyone relocated to the cemetery where they gathered around the “Soul Consoling Tower,” which was surrounded by flowers. They prayed and chanted. The interfaith closing ceremony included Buddhist ministers, a Shinto minister, Christian ministers, and a Muslim imam.