The Manzanar Pilgrimage held in December 1969 was the first pilgrimage to a U.S. concentration camp. Its purposes were to commemorate the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II and mobilize the community to ensure that injustices like the camps would never again victimize any group of Americans. Sponsored by the Organization of Southland Asian American Organizations, a coalition of activists working on issues of civil rights and education, the Manzanar Pilgrimage had more modest immediate intentions—to clean and restore the camp's cemetery in honor of the dead. As one of the organizers, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, recalled, “My mother was a very staunch Buddhist and she would always say, ‘Those poor people that are buried over there in Manzanar in the hot sun—they must be so dry. Be sure to take some water [as offerings]. She always thought it was important to go back and remember the people who had died.” In addition to remembering the dead, the pilgrimage highlighted the ongoing campaign to repeal Title II of the Internal Security Act. Passed in 1950 during the Cold War over President Harry Truman's veto, Title II authorized the government to apprehend and detain anyone suspected of engaging in espionage or sabotage.
Shortly after that first pilgrimage, activists formed the Manzanar Committee with Warren Furutani and Sue Kunitomi Embrey served as cochairs. Embrey was confined in Manzanar during the war, and her memories of the camp haunted her. Decades later she would recall the Manzanar riot: “the crunching of several hundred booted feet on the gravel road brings goose bumps to my arms even today. Since 1969 [the first pilgrimage], I have walked through the former campsite ruins countless times without fear. Yet, I cannot explain the one time when I walked from the car and stopped by the entrance along the barbed-wire fence. A sudden vision of a crowd, MPs with machine guns, fallen men in a pool of crimson. It was gone as suddenly as it had appeared. It was a scene I had not witnessed when it happened. But it brought on a fleeting faintness” (Embrey, xvii).
About 150 people participated in the first pilgrimage. On the 38th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage held in 2007, approximately 1,100 people attended, and since the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, and the onset of the U.S. “war on terror,” South and West Asian, Muslim, and Arab Americans have joined the pilgrimage. They, like Japanese Americans during World War II, were casualties of war inflicted upon them by their own government. The Manzanar Pilgrimage begins in Los Angeles and winds its way to Manzanar, and to the north the biennial Tule Lake Pilgrimage, which began in 1974, serves a similar purpose for those living in the Bay Area.
The pilgrimages have served to shape a sense of community, having shared a history, and they have helped to mobilize other social movements such as the Title II campaign that culminated with repeal in 1971, and the movement for redress and reparations that ended with passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Embrey, Sue Kunitomi. “Introduction.” In Manzanar Martyr: An Interview with Harry Y. Ueno. Edited by Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Arthur A. Hansen, and Betty Kulberg Mitson. xv–xviii. Fullerton, CA: Oral History Program, California State University, 1986.