Our Mission Statement:
The Manzanar Committee is dedicated to educating and raising public awareness about the incarceration and violation of civil rights of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II, and to the continuing struggle of all peoples when Constitutional rights are in danger.
The Beginning: The First Pilgrimage
In December 1969, about 150 people drove by car and bus on a pilgrimage to a dusty patch of desert in the Owens Valley, between Lone Pine and Independence, California. Their destination was Manzanar, one of ten concentration camps in which Americans of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated during World War II. As they stepped out of their cars, the bitter cold and biting wind gave the participants their first lesson on how life must have been for the detainees.
The participants were mostly students who had never been there before, organized by Sansei (third generation Japanese American, the children of the Nisei, the second generation, the first generation born in the United States) Warren Furutani, a Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) student leader and Victor Shibata, a student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who were inspired by the Civil Rights and identity movements of the 1960’s. Their search for a defining experience which shaped Japanese American identity led them to Manzanar, where they found a buckshot-riddled cemetery monument with the Japanese inscription, I Rei To, “Soul Consoling Tower.”
“I had a feeling of being somewhere significant,” said Furutani. “Just as the camp experience bears fruit for those individuals who want to pick and harvest the lessons and knowledge to be learned, these trees blossom every spring,” added Furutani.
For several participants, the connection to Manzanar was even more deeply rooted. Indeed, two Issei (first generation Japanese Americans, born in Japan) ministers, Reverends Sentoku Mayeda and Shoichi Wakahiro, had made the ohakamairi pilgrimage every year since the camp closed 25 years earlier to honor the 200 who had died in camp, and did not want them forgotten. “When we were inside, they had machine guns to keep us in. Then [after the war] they put locks and guards to keep us out.”
To be sure, they were pleased that the students were interested in learning about the site and remembering those who were incarcerated there.
Former incarcerees were invited to attend as first hand resources for the students since many of the parents of the younger generation college students would not talk about it. Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Karl Yoneda, Elaine Black, Amy Ishii, Henry Matsumura, Rex Takahashi, and Jim Matsuoka were a few of those who would speak.
The questions from the Sansei activists opened old wounds, and became a turning point for many of the former incarcerees, especially for Embrey, who had long buried the painful memories of camp and its aftermath.
“I knew what had happened to us was wrong, but didn’t feel anything could be done about it until then,” she said.
The experience joined participants together to push for real recognition of Manzanar, and an ad hoc group, the Manzanar Project, was formed.
Education and Preservation
The work of the group began in earnest in 1970, when the Manzanar Committee was formed with a two-fold focus on education and to establish Manzanar as a California State Historical Landmark.
Numerous teach-ins were held across the state, and included panels with Gordon Hirabayashi, Roger Daniels, Mary Kochiyama and others. Educational films were shown, including Robert Nakamura’s Manzanar, and home movies of the Amache, Heart Mountain and Topaz camps.
“We need to teach the history of evacuation and place it in historical perspective so that the Sansei may have the necessary tools to protect themselves against discrimination and racism which are inherent in American society,” Embrey wrote.
Projects included support for exhibits depicting life in camp, such as Executive Order 9066, at the Pasadena Museum of Art in 1971, and the California Historical Society’s exhibit, Months of Waiting, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1972, which featured art and photographs depicting the camp experience and the watercolors of Estelle Ishigo, who was imprisoned at the Heart Mountain concentration camp.
Collaboration with documentaries on the wartime experience, along with editorial articles and letters to the editors, kept the subject before the public. The Committee worked actively with Dr. Arthur A. Hansen, Ph.D. of the Japanese American Project, part of the Oral History Program at California State University, Fullerton, giving a voice to the stories and experiences of former incarcerees.
In 1972, the Committee published The Lost Years: 1942-1946, and efforts to reprint Ansel Adams’ Born Free and Equal began. Embrey and Ishii also created a slide show that was brought to schools, and actively worked with the Los Angeles Unified School District. In addition, a library was established to make films available to the community and classrooms. The Committee also collaborated with the Los Angeles Unified School District to produce Making Connections, a comprehensive teaching support guide about the Japanese American incarceration.
With the land around the monument and entry leased from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, with the condition of maintaining the land, the Committee provided the State of California with historical information, photographs and maps for State Landmark designation.
After numerous trips to Sacramento by Embrey, Furutani and Ishii, the site achieved Historic Landmark designation in January 1972, but not without a fight.
The wording submitted for the landmark plaque by the Committee was rejected due to objections over the terms hysteria, racism, and concentration camp. It would take a year of debate, hearings, emotional appeals, a nationwide petition and a letter writing campaign before the wording was accepted. The bronze plaque was fitted into the front wall of the stone guardhouse at the 1973 Pilgrimage by Ryozo Kado, the original stone mason who built the guardhouse and several of his then-young assistants who helped him some thirty years earlier.
The Committee also actively supported recognition of the other camps, and participated in the Tule Lake Pilgrimage in 1974, and Poston in 1975. Support was given to establish Angel Island as a Historic Landmark as well.
Following its dedication as a California State Landmark in 1972, the Manzanar Committee began working on designation of the site as a National Historic Landmark. Due to the Committee’s efforts, Congress authorized the Department of the Interior to survey Manzanar as a potential landmark. The Committee collaborated again in providing photographs, maps, interviews and finally, in 1984, Manzanar was nominated.
As a stake holder in the land, Tom Bradley, Mayor, City of Los Angeles, was consulted by the federal government for their stand on the designation. Bradley appointed then-Director of Criminal Justice Planning, Rose Ochi, a former incarceree from Rowher, as liasion between the City and the National Park Service, and later between the City and Inyo County. Manzanar received National Historic Landmark status a year later.
But the work to preserve Manzanar for future generations was not yet done.
National Historic Landmark status did nothing to protect the site because the land was owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. However, this step would have to be put on hold as more pressing needs faced the Japanese American community.
Working for Redress
Throughout this period, the debate over redress and reparations was brewing. Groups from around the country called for an apology from the U.S. Government and monetary compensation for violations of the civil rights of American citizens and legal residents affected by Executive Order 9066.
With the JACL unable to effectively make much progress on its own, the Committee joined the efforts of an emerging group in the San Fernando Valley, EO 9066 Inc. A survey of the Japanese American community determined that there was overwhelming support for both an apology and monetary compensation. Resolutions of support were sought from church groups, labor unions, community organizations and the Japanese American community to assert that it was not charity they were seeking, but a genuine solution to redress the wrongs committed against them. Many believed it was too late; others did not think there was enough support.
In 1979, the JACL took the stance of recommending the creation of a federal commission to study the matter and recommend solutions, and, the following year, President Jimmy Carter authorized the establishment of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC).
Though the Committee supported a stronger position, they joined the efforts of the National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR), led by former Manzanar incarceree William Hohri from Chicago, activists from Seattle, the Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization (LTPRO) and the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (NCRR; primarily out of the Los Angeles Community Coalition on Redress and Reparations) and testified before the Commission to make sure the Japanese American community was heard.
In December 1982, the CWRIC issued their findings in the exhaustive work, Personal Justice Denied, and included testimonies presented and researched by the Commission’s research associate, Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, a former Manzanar incarceree. The Commission recommended $20,000 in individual compensation to those incarcerated and a formal apology.
Government collusion was uncovered in the findings of Michi Weglyn, and published in her book, Years of Infamy, along with the findings of Peter Irons, a law historian. Irons’ findings would set into motion the 1983 appeal of the wartime convictions of Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui.
In late 1987, House Resolution 442, made it to the floor of the US House of Representatives. NCRR mobilized an Asian American delegation to lobby for the bill in Washington, D.C., which proved to be critical to its passage in the House on September 17, 1987.
On April 20, 1988, the Senate passed the companion bill Senate Bill 1009, and was sent to President Ronald Reagan for signing. Reagan threatened to veto the bill, but eventually signed what would become Public Law 100-383 on August 10, 1988. But it would take over two years for the first payments to be made.
Preservation Work Continues
With the legislative work for redress passed, work to establish the Historic Site intensified. After a lengthy process of community organizing and lobbying at the Congressional level, House Resolution 543, authored by Representative Mel Levine (D-California), was enacted into law (Public Law 102-248) on March 3, 1992, creating the Manzanar National Historic Site. The Committee worked with the Manzanar National Historic Site Advisory Commission, established by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, to oversee development of the project. Malicious opposition from some members of the Owens Valley community escalated, resulting in death threats if “a Jap museum” was erected. The Committee met with local residents, members of the Inyo County Board of Supervisors, and others to reach an understanding and build local support in the Owens Valley. Meanwhile, Ochi, who, along with fellow Manzanar Committee members Embrey and Gann Matsuda served on the Advisory Commission, was a key player in convincing the local community of the potential benefit of the Manzanar National Historic Site to the Owens Valley. Through tireless land negotiations and legislative efforts to develop the site, the land at Manzanar was finally transferred from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (who still owns the water rights) to the National Park Service in 1994. The Committee continued to push for the funding necessary to manage and build the site, and in 2002, groundbreaking began for a visitors center and headquarters.
The annual pilgrimages continued to draw large numbers of students and community members wanting to understand and share experiences. Inspired by a program at the Tule Lake Pilgrimage, member Jenni Kuida, along with member Ayako Hagihara, introduced the Manzanar After Dark program in 1997 as an opportunity for the different generations to come together. A compilation of poetry by students inspired by the pilgrimage resulted in the publication Keep It Going, Pass It On in 2004.
In 2004, the Visitors Center, housed in the old Manzanar High School auditorium, was completed, a stunning exhibit of the site’s history and the stories of people incarcerated there, along with the history of pre-camp communities that lived at Manzanar, such as the Owens Valley Paiute, farmers, rancher and miners.
The opening commemorative speech would be Embrey’s last, her health frail from chronic sarcoidosis, a condition she believed was a result of the years in the dust-filled camp. When asked “Why continue the work? The site is protected, redress was won,” she responded that there was still work to be done—many had not heard of the camps.
On May 15, 2006, Sue Kunitomi Embrey passed away, leaving a legacy for generations to remember and a nation to reflect upon. Since her loss, the Committee has continued the work she started some 36 years earlier. The pilgrimages continue to draw over 1,000 participants who come from all over the nation, and the Manzanar At Dusk program is attended by over 300 people each year, with college students returning to the leadership role in organizing the program in 2011.
LEAD PHOTO: The first Manzanar Pilgrimage was held in December 1969. In this photo, some of the approximately 150 participants gathered around the cemetery monument, including pilgrimage co-founder Sue Kunitomi Embrey (center; holding hands below chin). Photo: National Park Service/Evan Johnson Collection.
SECOND PHOTO: The California State Historic Landmark plaque at the Manzanar National Historic Site was dedicated in 1973 after a year-long debate over whether the term, concentration camp should be included. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
THIRD PHOTO: A scene from the 43rd Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, held on April 28, 2012. Photo: Mark Kirchner/Manzanar Committee.
The Manzanar Committee, which has sponsored the Pilgrimage since 1969, along with the Manzanar At Dusk program since 1997 (the program was originally known as Manzanar After Dark), is an all-volunteer organization, incorporated under the laws of the State of California as a non-profit educational organization. We invite your support, your energy, and your participation as a member. All donations, which can be made by clicking on the “Donate” button at right, are tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law.
You may contact the Committee at:
1566 Curran St.
Los Angeles, CA 90026-2036