55th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage Uplifts Struggles for Peace, Justice and Defense of Democracy


Banner photo credit Jon Klusmire

Advocates Highlight the Need for Black Reparations, Peace in Gaza, and Protecting Democratic Rights to 1,600 Attendees

On Saturday April 25th 2024, the Manzanar Committee successfully hosted its 55th Annual Pilgrimage centered on the theme of Peace, Justice and Defense of Democracy. The day program featured educational speeches, cultural performances, and an interfaith ceremony to commemorate all of those buried at the cemetery. More than 1,600 people attended the pilgrimage and visited the site.

The Manzanar at Dusk program, in its 26th year, was also a huge success with more than 300 participants including college students from seven different Nikkei Student Union chapters from across California, community members, and survivors from WWII Japanese American confinement sites who joined together in an intergenerational exchange.

Glen Kitayama, a longtime community activist and Manzanar Committee member, welcomed the crowd by sharing, “We are all here with each other in fellowship to remember that the lessons of the Japanese American incarceration are part of an ongoing struggle for peace and democracy.”

Keynote speaker Don Tamaki explained the historic and current intersections between advocacy efforts for reparations within the Japanese-American and Black-American communities: “We can learn from the leaders of this Pilgrimage, who know that reparations is a justice issue, about holding the nation to its professed ideals. We can walk in the footsteps of Black leaders who supported Japanese American reparations, including the Congressional Black Caucus,” Tamaki explained. “[The Congressional Black Caucus] could have turned their backs on us. Instead, they embraced us when we most needed their support. They lived the words of Martin Luther King: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality – tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Tamaki served as co-counsel on the landmark coram nobis court case in which he successfully overturned the 1944 conviction of Fred Korematsu for violating EO 9066. He also served on the California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. Don Tamaki continued, “So let’s not be complicit with centuries’ long unacknowledged and continuing wrongs. As with our struggle for justice, let’s take part in making history instead of being its bystanders. Learning from our own fight for justice, let’s remember each time America has owned-up to its wrongs, repaired them and become more inclusive, more faithful to its ideals and more just.”

In addition to reflecting on historical wrongdoings, the Manzanar Pilgrimage serves as an important place to examine current conflicts. Professor and Manzanar Committee member Wendi Yamashita reminded the audience, “Every year we come here, to this place. We remember what happened to Japanese-Americans during World War II. And those memories challenge us, they inspire us, and they push us to action in this moment to fight for what is right and just.”

This call to action was especially salient given the devastating and heartbreaking violence in Gaza that has escalated over the last 6 months. Omar Altamimi, Senior Policy and Advocacy Coordinator of CAIR CA shared, “Almost 100 years ago the silence of good Americans – not the bad ones, the good ones – their silence led to the devastating injustice against Japanese American communities. Silence is complicity. Silence empowers, abusers and wrongdoers. Today we are called upon to break that silence as we witness a genocide that has taken the lives of 34,000 People, 14,000 children.”

Recent events in the United States have also underscored how fragile American democracy is. Bruce Embrey, Co-Chair of the Manzanar Committee, shared with the audience, “Today, as we gather at the Ireito, we worry about the future of our country because of an reenergized white nationalist movement that threatens our democratic rights.” Embrey highlighted the parallels between nativist attacks on the Nikkei community in 1942 that stripped Japanese and Japanese Americans of their democratic rights and freedoms with the current vitriol against communities based on their race, religion, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation.

The Pilgrimage opened with a land acknowledgement and welcome from Jeremiah Joseph of the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Tribe, whose land Manzanar is located on, and was followed by comments from Acting Superintendent Gavin Gardner who acknowledged the Manzanar Committee’s critical role in the founding of the National Historic Site. The program opened and closed with a procession of banners to honor incarcerees of the ten concentration camps, Crystal City Family Internment Camp and the Tuna Canyon Detention Center, as well as the military service of those from the all Japanese-American 442nd Infantry Regiment / 100th Battalion / MIS. An interfaith service was conducted by Buddhist and Christian ministers with many Muslim and Jewish participants in the cemetery to commemorate those who had passed.

The program also included a student speaker, Maiya Kuida-Osumi, who recently participated in Katari: Keeping Japanese American Stories Alive – the Manzanar Committee’s joint educational project with the National Park Service. The Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award was presented to Ron Wakabayashi thanks to his leadership advancing justice for the Japanese American community and defending human rights for all. There were also cultural performances by Kyodo Taiko of UCLABonbu Stories, and Ken Koshio. Participants joined in an ondo dance to celebrate collective resilience and Japanese cultural heritage.

The Manzanar Committee extends its thanks to all who attended this year’s pilgrimage – both in-person and online. “We return to Manzanar because we believe it is our duty to honor our families and to say that what happened here must never be forgotten and must never happen to anyone anywhere,” explained Bruce Embrey, Manzanar Committee Co-Chair.

Banner photo credit Jon Klusmire

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The Manzanar Committee, sponsor of the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage and Manzanar At Dusk program, the youth education project, Katari: Keeping Japanese American Stories Alive, and the Sue Kunitomi Student Awards Program, 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. A non-profit organization that has sponsored the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage since 1969, along with other educational programs, the Manzanar Committee has also played a key role in the establishment and continued development of the Manzanar National Historic Site. For more information, check out our website at https://manzanarcommittee.org, call us at (323) 662-5102, or e-mail us at info@manzanarcommittee.org. You can also follow the Manzanar Committee on Facebook, on Instagram, and on YouTube.