I’ve been wondering what drove more than 2,000 people to this year’s Manzanar Pilgrimage. Why did they endure the blazing sun and the blistering heat to listen to speeches and taiko drums? Why did they come to pray at the Soul Consoling Tower so far from home?
To be sure, it had to do with the current political climate. Just as the 1969 Manzanar Pilgrimage grew out of the broader society-wide struggle for social justice, the backdrop for the 50th anniversary of the Manzanar Pilgrimage was the turmoil gripping our country.
In 1969, our nation was in the throes social upheaval. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., urban areas erupted in rage. The Civil Rights Movement was sweeping the nation with its demands for equality in employment, Ethnic Studies education, equitable housing, fair and just voting rights, and the Third World Student Strike. An unjust war in Vietnam was raging. The Stonewall rebellion in New York gave new voice to the LGBTQ community. Indeed, the first Manzanar Pilgrimage did not occur in isolation.
Today, news of mass shootings in houses of worship and images of children in cages on our southern border dominate our news feeds and it is horrific. You would think this would overshadow any anniversary. But this is precisely what drove many to come to Manzanar this year. We needed to return, to stand up, to celebrate our resilience, our determination, and our commitment to democracy during these perilous times.
This year, I felt optimism and a sense of pride surging through the crowd. There was a feeling of community, a feeling of quiet resolve. I saw it among long-time participants and many of those who came for the first time.
What struck me, as speaker after speaker spoke of the dangers we face, the challenges of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and racist, xenophobic policies of the current administration, is that I didn’t sense despair. As Karen Korematsu and Dale Minami spoke, it seemed we could not help but be proud and hopeful. We were proud because here we stood, some 50 years after the first Pilgrimage, looking out over a crowd of thousands, so much larger than 50 years earlier. We stood listening to how we had triumphed, vacating unconstitutional Supreme Court rulings, proving we can achieve some justice despite the lies and deception of our government. We stood there and took stock of how we, and our country, had overturned exclusion acts, alien land laws, and how we had managed, after decades of struggle, to wrest an apology from our government. We stood there in solidarity, shoulder to shoulder, with Council on American-Islamic Relations founder Nihad Awad to declare our unconditional support for their fight against Islamophobia and for Civil Rights. We were optimistic that, if we stand together, we are all stronger. We were confident that we will begin to turn the tide towards justice and equal rights.
Someone who was there for the first time told me, in tears, that they loved the museum. They said they heard that my mother, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, had contributed much to its collection. I said that I felt the contributions my mother made were far greater than artifacts, though she had donated many items to the National Park Service.
We agreed that the collection, the rebuilding of the barracks with the voices of survivors, the women’s latrine, are amazing and powerful. We agreed these exhibits hit you right in the gut. Likewise, the gardens, the remnants of foundations evoke powerful responses, feelings you can only get from walking on the same ground our families walked on seven decades ago.
But I told her I don’t think of the Manzanar National Historic Site as just a museum or as an archeological site, even though it is hallowed ground and the displays are so impressive. As important as the site is, or objects are, it is the story, the interpretation, and the lessons one needs to draw from our experience that is truly important. This is what gives the objects and land their significance. I explained as important as old pieces of furniture, dishes or foundations may be, what is truly precious is the human story of what led up to the creation of this site and now the rebuilding of Manzanar.
My mother did not set out to build a museum. She worked tirelessly for decades to build a monument to American democracy, to civil and human rights. My mother worked to enshrine a set of ideals for future generations to see. It is the interpretation, the cautionary tale, the warning, and the lessons of why it must never happen again that must survive. It is the story that must never die. That is what drove my mother for more than three and half decades to return to Manzanar and that is what drives us today to rebuild Manzanar as the Manzanar National Historic Site.
LEAD PHOTO: Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey, shown here during the 50th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage. April 27. 2019, Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
Bruce Embrey writes from Los Angeles, California.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
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