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The Harada House of Riverside, California: A Milestone in Japanese American Resistance to Racist Oppression - Part 4 of 6

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Before I pursue that matter, however, I would like to say a few words about one topic that Sue and I did not cover in our second interview session—her involvement in the Nisei Progressive organization.

When Sue left Manzanar in October 1943 to resettle in the so-called “free zone” of the United States, she went first to Madison, Wisconsin, and then, in July 1944, moved to Chicago. There, as a clerical employee at the Newberry Library, she developed an interracial friendship circle of girlfriends and even dated interracially to a limited extent.

Upon leaving Chicago in 1948 to return to Los Angeles, she sought organizations that worked for racial integration, civil liberties, and democratic labor unions, while being dedicated to confronting virulent racism and right-wing anti-Communist crusades. In her search for a suitable organization Sue discovered the Nisei Progressives who were committed not only to get Franklin Roosevelt’s former vice-president Henry Wallace elected president on the Progressive Party ticket, but also to bring about such progressive public policy as redress and reparations for Japanese Americans for their racist wartime treatment by the U.S. government.

Among other policies the Nisei Progressives championed were a discontinuance of discriminatory hiring practices and a termination of restrictive covenants in housing. The group, which had branches in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, also addressed issues that specifically affected Japanese Americans, such as anti-miscegenation laws and the dangers of nuclear weapons. This brand of Progressive political activism was strongly opposed by the mainstream Japanese American community, who were also put off by the leftist affiliation of some of the group’s leadership (a few of whom were Communists) and the organization’s harassment by the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Perhaps one reason that the topic of Sue’s involvement with the Nisei Progressives did not surface in our conversation was due to my having riveted primary attention upon her political activism with respect to the Manzanar Committee. Another possible explanation for this chapter in Sue’s life as a resister not being raised independently by her with me, then a veritable stranger to her, was that she might have been sensitive to my being someone who lived in and was employed at a university located within Orange County, an area notorious for its reactionary political conservatism.

Sue Kunitomi Embrey (Courtesy of National Park Service)

In any event, one of my later graduate history students at Cal State Fullerton, Tim Carpenter, now the national director of the Progressive Democrats of America, wrote his master’s project in the early 1990s on the Nisei Progressives, for which he did an oral history interview with Sue Embrey as well as several other key Nisei Progressive leaders.

That project was subsequently used by progressive Sansei journalist Martha Nakagawa as the basis for an illuminating series of Rafu Shimpo feature articles on the Nisei Progressives, while still another progressive Sansei writer, UC Santa Barbara Asian Americanist Diane Fujino, is drawing on Carpenter’s and Nakagawa’s pioneering work in her forthcoming book focused on Nisei Progressives.

Of course, what Fujino will be developing in a full-fledged book has already been accomplished to a limited degree by Diana Bahr, Embrey’s biographer, in a chapter of her The Unquiet Nisei titled “Nisei Progressives and Beyond.” In this chapter, Bahr mentions that Sue met her future husband, leftist political activist Garland Monroe Embrey, in 1948 at a Nisei Progressive Party, and also discusses both the resistance that their boundary-crossing marriage represented (between 1948 and 1951 only 12 percent of the Japanese American population of Los Angeles County married interracially) and the resistance that their union provoked within Sue’s family, especially by her widowed Issei mother, and the Japanese American community generally.

But if Sue bypassed the Nisei Progressive phase of her postwar social activism in the second session of our interview, she did have a lot to say about her interracial marriage and, to a still greater extent, her myriad other reform and resistance activities during this interval in her life. A great many of these activities were rooted in her involvement in the Manzanar Committee and that organization’s sponsored annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, both of which became synonymous with the name of Sue Kunitomi Embrey.

Sue did not organize the first pilgrimage to Manzanar in December 1969, a development which was inspired by the San Francisco State College strike earlier that year on behalf of establishing an Ethnic Studies program with an Asian American component. But she did, along with her husband Gar, join the 250 people who participated in the pilgrimage. They were mostly Sansei college students who viewed the pilgrimage as a way of getting their previously reluctant Nisei parents to talk about their wartime camp experiences.

It was Sue’s first time back at the Manzanar site since she left it to go to Madison, Wisconsin, in 1943. Sue was disappointed that while there was a substantial number of Issei who participated in the pilgrimage, there were very few Nisei who did.

One Nisei who did, however, was the activist Jim Matsuoka, who had spent part of his youth at Manzanar and was a speaker at the event. He received very negative responses from other Nisei, however, for a remark he made in response to an NBC reporter’s innocent question of “How many people are buried here in the Manzanar cemetery?” To which Matsuoka said: “A whole generation. A whole generation of Japanese Americans who are now so frightened that they will not talk. They’re quiet Americans. They’re all buried here.”

At the 1969 pilgrimage, one of the coordinators, Warren Furutani, a charismatic and outspoken fourth-generation Japanese American civil rights activist, turned to Sue to assume primary responsibility for dealing with the media’s request for information and interviews. After that first pilgrimage, the Japanese American Citizens League, deciding that they needed to incorporate some of the young Nikkei activists into the JACL, hired Furutani to fill their position of National Youth Coordinator and to work out of Los Angeles.

Because he was now, in 1970, preoccupied with the duties of this new position, Furutani could not handle the deluge of requests he was receiving from school-age Japanese Americans for information that they could use in writing papers and doing projects on their parents’ and grandparents’ World War II experiences at Manzanar and the other concentration camps established by the U.S. government for imprisoning Americans of Japanese ancestry. Again, Furutani turned to Sue for help, asking her, in particular, to serve as a resource for kids requesting documents, photographs, and personal reminiscences related to Manzanar. As a resource point-person, Sue’s life thereafter began to revolve more and more around the history and memory of Manzanar.

Part 5 >>

* This was a presentation at the Riverside Metropolitan Museum, in Riverside, California, on October 20, 2012, for a program to celebrate publication of Mark Howland Rawitsch’s 2012 book, The House on Lemon Street: Japanese Pioneers and the American Dream, published by the University Press of Colorado in the Lane Hirabayashi-edited NIKKEI IN THE AMERICAS series.

© 2012 Arthur A. Hansen

asian american studies camps Harada jacl japanese americans manzanar manzanar pilgrimage nisei Nisei Progressive redress resistance sue embrey World War II