The following was published in the printed program for the 50th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, April 27, 2019.
In 1969, a small group of students and a handful of Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans; the children of immigrants) who lived behind barbed wire, journeyed to Manzanar to search for answers about their history. An imposing cemetery obelisk stood watch over a small grave site. Little was left in the desert, where not long ago, thousands of Japanese and Japanese Americans lived in one of America’s concentration camps.
Though they found little, they knew in their hearts and souls this was a special place. They knew this place held special significance for their families, their community, and their country. They set out to tell the world the story of America’s concentration camps and about the injustices of the forced removal of the Japanese American community during World War II.
Once back in Los Angeles, a small group, including Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Warren Furutani, Jim Matsuoka, and others, set out to make Manzanar a California State Historic Landmark. The battle for landmark status begged the questions: what was this place? What words describe what happened to us, to our families? Why were we forcibly removed and incarcerated in places far from our homes, isolated in primitive camps?
The wording they came up with was strong and direct. The former inmates used powerful words—racism, economic greed, violation of civil rights and concentration camp—to describe Manzanar.
In 1971, against strong odds, they succeeded. A succinct, clear view of the injustices that the Japanese community suffered during World War II, written by those who lived it, was now set in stone. Pure and simple, they were words that spoke the truth. Achieving landmark status was a major victory. For the first time, one of the War Relocation Authority camps received official historic recognition.
In April 1973, stonemason Ryozo F. Kado installed the bronze plaque on the stone sentry house he built just 30 years before. 1,500 watched as the former prisoner carefully set the historic marker in place. Among those witnessing this unprecedented event was Professor Arthur A. Hansen, a professor of History at California State University, Fullerton, who later reflected on the significance of the Pilgrimages.
“[The Pilgrimage] forced Japanese Americans to view their past, present, and future with different eyes… . It gave them the desire and the strength to move mountains. The Manzanar Pilgrimage endowed Japanese Americans with a will toward righteousness and pointed them in the direction of ways to achieve it.”
The Pilgrimage was one key front in a broader battle for justice for the Japanese American community. Spurred on by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, led by the African American community, more and more Japanese Americans began to identify with the movement for social justice, which became the impetus for organizing the first Pilgrimage.
Specifically, demands for redress and reparations for Japanese Americans gained strength. Edison Uno, a leader in the Japanese American Citizens League, William Hohri, founder of the National Council for Japanese American Redress, along with leaders in the Seattle and San Fernando Valley JACL, demanded action. Pressure grew and the Japanese American Congressional delegation, Senators Daniel Inoyue and Spark Matsunaga, Representatives Robert Matsui, Norman Mineta, and others, pushed and President Jimmy Carter signed legislation in 1980, creating the Commission on Wartime Internment and Relocation of Civilians.
The huge victory came in 1988, when the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was passed, giving redress and reparations and an apology from the United States Government. It was the culmination of a long, grass-roots struggle led by former prisoners and their community, and with the unconditional support of allies in Congress such as Mervyn Dymally and Ron Dellums.
The recognition by Congress that the forced removal of the Japanese American community was driven by race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership, and not military necessity, further transformed shame and humiliation into righteous anger. The efforts to ensure that this would “never happen again to anyone, anywhere” did not slow down with the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Indeed, Legislative remedies were not the end of the quest for truth and justice. In fact, the Manzanar Committee redoubled their efforts to create a lasting monument at Manzanar. Going back to our nation’s capital, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Chair of the Manzanar Committee, gave testimony urging the creation of a National Historic Site during a United States Senate hearing in 1991.
“Manzanar need not be a reminder of an event which negates American democracy,” she said. “It can and must be a positive model of what our nation is willing to do to right an old injustice. Democracy is a fragile concept only as good and as strong as the people who practice it.”
“This is the legacy which we believe the Manzanar National Historic Site can leave for future generations, for Americans of every color and creed, to learn from the past,” she added.
On March 3, 1992, the Manzanar National Historic Site was born and today, we are witnessing a rebirth, a re-creation of life behind barbed wire. We are excited, this time, to see wooden barracks or a guard tower rebuilt. We help excavate gardens and koi ponds that came to be under the watchful eye of armed soldiers peering down from eight guard towers because this time, it is to teach our nation.
The Manzanar National Historic Site offers a panoramic view of the incarceration. On the one hand, it shows the fundamental failure of American democracy. On the other, it also stands as a monument to the strength and determination of ordinary people who forced our nation to examine that failure. Manzanar National Historic Site stands as a monument to both the inherent problems, as well as the fundamental strengths, of our democracy.
There is a renewed significance to today’s Manzanar Pilgrimage. While we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this Pilgrimage, we are alarmed at the current political climate.
In eerily familiar language, our political representatives attack the Muslim American community, attack immigrants fleeing persecution and falsely accuse communities of color of undermining our nation’s economy and social fabric. Today, families are torn apart, children sent to live in cages just as in 1942, when our families were torn apart. Fathers were sent to Department of Justice prisons while their families lived in horse stalls. Children died from inadequate health care behind barbed wire just as children die on our southern border from easily treatable illnesses. Our families were targeted simply because of their ancestry, because of the way they worshiped and the language they spoke differed from those who governed our land.
Our history is a cautionary tale. Our tale is one America must learn from. We must demand that all people receive the same rights and freedoms our Constitution guarantees to us and that no one be denied their human or civil rights because of the color of their skin, the language they speak or how they worship.
This year, on the 50th anniversary of the Manzanar Pilgrimage, we honor and remember those who sacrificed, who dared to remember what had been forgotten. We honor those who worked so tirelessly to make sure a single cemetery monument amid the scrub brush would someday grow into a National Historic Site.
The story of the incarceration of the Japanese American people is unique in modern American History. The wholesale deprivation of a community’s civil and constitutional rights and the ensuing struggle for justice should be a lesson for all. Our story is an American story, showing both the strengths and weaknesses of our nation’s democracy.
We cannot stand idly by while other communities are threatened. Given our experience, we have a special obligation to stand up when others are persecuted. We must not remain silent. It is our duty, as Americans, to ensure the civil, human, and Constitutional rights of all be protected especially during times of crisis. Democracy is indeed a “fragile concept” that must be defended at all times.
LEAD PHOTO: A quiet moment at the cemetery at Manzanar National Historic Site, a couple of hours prior to the start of the 50th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, April 27, 2019, with the Soul Consoling Tower (cemetery monument) in the foreground and the snow-capped peaks of the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains in the background. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
Brnce Embrey is Co-Chair of the Manzanar Commitee. He 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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