From its humble and passionate beginnings in 1969, the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage has become more than just a way to honor those who were interned at the camp. It has also become a way to honor those who continue to fight for reparations and civil rights, and those who are committed to preserving the memory of the World War II Japanese internment camps that serve as an example of how fragile civil rights in America are.
The primary sponsor for the pilgrimage is the Manzanar Committee, a group of former internees and family that organizes the weekend full of events and awards pioneers who have helped to keep the memory of the internships and civil rights violations alive.
There will be the usual lineup of events in 2011, including a dynamic performance by the Taiko drummers, inter-faith service at the cemetery and offerings to the famous “soul consoling” tower. And there will be awards for those dedicated to Manzanar.
The 42nd Annual Pilgrimage begins at noon Saturday, April 30 at the Manzanar Cemetery.
There is also always a focus on current civil rights causes and champions, said Bruce Embrey, a co-chair of the Committee and son of Manzanar internee and one of the group’s founders, the late Sue Kunitomi Embrey.
The focus is tied to the annual theme; the 42nd annual pilgrimage will be honoring “the pioneers and giants of helping to get (internees) reparations.”
Frank Seishi Emi, who was the leader of internees at Heart Mountain, Wyo. and who resisted the draft, will be honored posthumously.
Alisha Lynch, Manzanar’s chief of interpretation, will be honored for her decade of service to the National Historic Site.
The keynote speaker this year will be Mako Nakagawa, the primary author of the National Council of the Japanese American Citizens League’s “Power of Words” resolution that ultimately led to reparations from the U.S. Congress.
Nakagawa is also credited with recently uncovering U.S. government documents from World War II that state Japanese-Americans posed no threat to the war effort or American civilians. Nevertheless, because of Executive Order 9066 signed in February 1942, more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned at concentration camps like Manzanar.
Embrey added that there is also another population that has joined the committee and its fight for civil liberties – Arabs and Muslims.
Embrey said by phone that, “the similarities are uncanny” between the kind of prejudice and racial profiling the Muslim- and Arab-Americans are facing now and the kind Japanese-Americans endured in the 1940s.
In March 2010, Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.) was conducting congressional hearings on the radicalization of the American Muslim community.
“The parallels to these hearings and the ones held on Japanese-Americans is amazing,” Embrey said. “Muslims have a stake in Americans knowing their history.”
And, Embrey said, this year’s pilgrimage will take time to honor the power of words.
Nakagawa has written and researched extensively on the use of labels during World War II. Labels such as “intern camp” instead of “concentration camps,” Embrey said, have a big impact on the way history can be perceived.
“Labels cannot be downplayed,” Embrey said. He said that these concepts are important to understand, because, to use a cliché, those who do not know their own history are bound to repeat it.
“We can easily fall into the same thing, again,” Embrey said.
Embrey added that the Committee, as a whole, has not headed any relief efforts for survivors of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, but he said individual members have been very active with fundraising in the Los Angeles area. Embrey said he hopes that the Park Service will allow for a UNICEF donation truck to be at the pilgrimage.