People gathered around the Manzanar cemetery monument, with barbed wire in the foreground and mountains and dramatic clouds in the distant background.

Photo Essay: The First Manzanar Pilgrimage

On December 27, 1969, an intergenerational group of Issei, Nisei, Sansei, and a few Yonsei made the 220-mile trek from Los Angeles to Manzanar. It was the first organized pilgrimage to one of the former concentration camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during WWII. But it wouldn’t be the last. That first Manzanar Pilgrimage sparked a long-standing tradition that spread to other WWII incarceration sites and helped start a campaign to preserve Manzanar as a site of national historical significance.

The 1969 Manzanar Pilgrimage was sponsored by the umbrella group Organization of Southland Asian American Organizations, and coordinated largely by student activists who linked it to the campaign to repeal Title II of the Internal Security Act of 1950 — a law that authorized the detention of suspected subversives during an “internal security emergency,” which many Black and radical activists feared would be used to suppress political dissent. As Rev. Lloyd Wake said during the pilgrimage ceremony, “we dedicate ourselves to the causes of freedom so that no other people shall have to go through what we had to go through.”

The 150 or so participants — ranging in age from three to eighty-three, according to a report in Gidra the following month — gathered at the Japanese American Citizens League office in Little Tokyo, at 6:00am on the morning of the 27th. Six long hours later, they arrived at Manzanar, where they got to work cleaning and restoring the cemetery. Reverends Sentoku Maeda and Shoichi Wakahiro, two Issei who were incarcerated at Manzanar, had been returning to pray for those who died there every year since the camp closed, and Maeda led a Buddhist ceremony in front of the iconic white stone cemetery monument. 

That first Manzanar Pilgrimage was a success. It also mobilized the Japanese American community to push for formal recognition of Manzanar’s history. The OSAAO’s Manzanar Project Committee soon became the Manzanar Committee, with Sue Kunitomi Embrey and Warren Furutani as co-chairs. The Committee formalized an annual pilgrimage every April, and went on to play an active role in the redress movement as well as successfully getting Manzanar designated a California State Historic Landmark in 1972, a National Historic Landmark in 1985, and finally as a National Historic Site in 1992.

Today, Japanese Americans continue to organize annual pilgrimages at Manzanar and other former WWII concentration camps, both to remember the past and, as at the first Manzanar Pilgrimage, to say “Never Again.” As we mark the anniversary of this historic event, we take a look back at some of the photos from that day, taken by UC Davis Asian American Studies student Evan Johnson.

Head to the Densho Digital Repository to see the full Evan Johnson Collection. And read Martha Nakagawa’s Densho Encyclopedia article on camp pilgrimages or check out the Manzanar Committee to learn more.

A grave site in the Manzanar cemetery. A wreath and flowers are laid in front of a grave stone, with a barbed wire fence and mountains in the background.
A grave at Manzanar. Photo courtesy of the Manzanar National Historic Site and the Evan Johnson Collection.
A Japanese American family at the Manzanar cemetery monument. Two preteens are touching a barbed wire fence in the foreground, and a woman is standing next to the white stone monument holding a small child behind them.
Children visiting the Manzanar Cemetery monument, designed by Issei stonemason Ryozo Kado in 1943. The kanji reads, “Monument to console the souls of the dead.” Photo courtesy of the Manzanar National Historic Site and the Evan Johnson Collection.
Seven Japanese Americans standing in front of the Manzanar cemetery monument.
Pilgrims gathered in front of the cemetery monument. Photo courtesy of the Manzanar National Historic Site and the Evan Johnson Collection.
An intergenerational group of people gathered to listen to the pilgrimage ceremony.
People gathered for the pilgrimage ceremony. Photo courtesy of the Manzanar National Historic Site and the Evan Johnson Collection.
A Japanese American man wearing glasses and a heavy coat stands in the middle of a crowd of people, speaking during the pilgrimage ceremony.
A speaker addressing the crowd during the ceremony. Photo courtesy of the Manzanar National Historic Site and the Evan Johnson Collection.
Pilgrims gathered at the former Manzanar concentration camp during the 1969 pilgrimage. There is a small group of young, college-age people in the foreground, with more people and cars in the background.
Pilgrims gathered at the former Manzanar site. Photo courtesy of the Manzanar National Historic Site and the Evan Johnson Collection.
People eating next to a VW bus during the pilgrimage.
Mealtime on the pilgrimage. Photo courtesy of the Manzanar National Historic Site and the Evan Johnson Collection.
People gathered around a bonfire during the 1969 Manzanar Pilgrimage.
Pilgrims gathered around a bonfire. Photo courtesy of the Manzanar National Historic Site and the Evan Johnson Collection.
A film crew talking to a pilgrimage attendee. There is one man speaking to the pilgrim while two others hold a camera and a microphone. A tent and other pilgrims are in the background.
A film crew documenting the pilgrimage. Photo courtesy of the Manzanar National Historic Site and the Evan Johnson Collection.
A man watering a small tree at Manzanar. He is bent over a large water jug and a mountain range and dramatic clouds are in the distant background behind him.
A man watering a tree at the former camp site. Photo courtesy of the Manzanar National Historic Site and the Evan Johnson Collection.
The Manzanar cemetery monument with a fresh coat of paint. It is a stone obelisk painted white with black kanji that reads "monument to console the souls of the dead." There is a box of painting supplies on the ground next to the monument, and mountains in the background.
The Manzanar Cemetery monument with a fresh coat of paint. Also known as the “soul consoling tower” or i-rei-toh, it was designed by Manzanar incarceree Ryozo Kado in 1943. The kanji reads, “monument to console the souls of the dead.” Photo courtesy of the Manzanar National Historic Site and the Evan Johnson Collection.
A view of the Inyo Mountains from Manzanar, with an overhanging tree branch and an old barbed wire fence in the foreground
A view of the Inyo Mountains from Manzanar. Photo courtesy of the Manzanar National Historic Site and the Evan Johnson Collection.
View of the Sierra Nevada mountains over a dirt road leading out of Manzanar
A view of the Sierra Nevadas from the former camp site. Photo courtesy of the Manzanar National Historic Site and the Evan Johnson Collection.
A VW Bug driving away from Manzanar after the pilgrimage. The car is on a dirt road lined with fence posts on one side.
A car driving away from Manzanar at the end of the pilgrimage. Photo courtesy of the Manzanar National Historic Site and the Evan Johnson Collection.

By Densho Staff

[Header photo: Pilgrims gathered in front of the Manzanar Cemetery monument. Courtesy of the Manzanar National Historic Site and the Evan Johnson Collection.]

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