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The Harada House of Riverside, California: A Milestone in Japanese American Resistance to Racist Oppression - Part 5 of 6

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In 1970, a group of people, including Sue, organized a small committee called the Manzanar Project Committee. Along with Furutani, this committee took up the matter of the advisability of the Manzanar site becoming a historical landmark. By the next year, 1971, when the committee first assumed the name of the Manzanar Committee, the members did a lot of research and obtained a historical landmark application from the State of California.

According to Sue, the committee members were informed that the state would set aside one qualification for landmark status, a place or incident not being within the living memory of man, which was typically interpreted to mean more than fifty years old. But there were things, Sue told me, that the state did want to know: “What significance does Manzanar have today? Why was it of particular interest when there were ten camps altogether?” What the Manzanar Committee replied in response to these questions, said Sue, was the following justification: “One, Manzanar was the first camp that was built; secondly, it was the nearest camp to Los Angeles, where there is the biggest number of [mainland] Japanese Americans living and where most of the internees at Manzanar had come from; and thirdly, that there was a cemetery at Manzanar.

Sue at the 1972 Pilgrimage. Couresy of Manzanar Committee

By the time of the 1972 pilgrimage to Manzanar, Sue informed me, the state had accepted Manzanar as a historical site, but the Manzanar Committee, working in conjunction with the JACL, was told that their suggested wording for the plaque to be placed at the site was both too long and too explosive. Some adjustments and compromises were made in the wording, but shortening made the message come across still more explosively. The result was that the State Advisory Committee on Historical Landmarks Committee completely turned down the plaque’s proposed language.

After mobilizing support for the committee’s wording in the form of letters and petitions, the Manzanar Committee believed it was finally in a strong position to negotiate with the State on the wording, with the fond hope that it could be approved.

Originally the term “concentration camp” on the plaque was a source of objection, but now the Landmarks Advisory Committee accepted it. Although the Landmarks Advisory Committee objected strongly to the word “racism” on the plaque, its leadership indicated that it would be acceptable if backed by convincing documentation. The committee also did not like using the term “economic greed” on the plaque. The one word that the committee most wanted to be used on the plaque to explain the federal government’s creation of the wartime camps was “hysteria.”

Still, when the compromise wording for the plaque hammered out by the Manzanar Committee, the JACL, and the Landmarks Advisory Committee was passed along to William Penn Mott, director of the State Parks and Recreation Department, for his approval, he flatly turned down the wording, saying that he would approve “concentration camp,” but adamantly refused to accept “racism” and “greed.”

At this point the Manzanar Committee, according to Sue, steadfastly declared: “If we’re going to have a fight on our hands, we are going to continue this campaign.” This they assuredly did, beginning with making contact with then-Speaker of the Assembly Bob Moretti. He wrote to Penn Mott saying, “I realize that this is a very touchy subject, but from the documentation in my office, I would have to support the Manzanar Committee on their wording.” The committee also communicated with Assemblyman Alex Garcia, whose district covered Little Tokyo and Chinatown in Los Angeles, and who had a Sansei aide named Dennis Nishikawa. Garcia said he would support the Manzanar Committee’s wording. Support also was promised the Manzanar Committee for its wording by Mervin Dymally, an influential African American state senator.

Ultimately, an afternoon meeting, chaired by Assemblyman Alex Garcia, was held in Sacramento on March 19, 1973, between representatives of those who supported the Manzanar Committee’s wording, representatives from the State Parks and Recreation Department, and representatives from both the national JACL and the Manzanar Committee.

The JACL spokespersons provided ample documentation justifying the use of the words “racism” and “greed,” but suggested that “greed” be substituted with the term “economic exploitation,” which Penn Mott decided was fine. It looked at this juncture as though the wording of the plaque would be approved so that the plaque could be placed at the Manzanar site at the upcoming pilgrimage set for April 14. But when the clock struck ten minutes to three, Penn Mott said that he had a meeting with some people who were coming from Washington, and it looked like the controversy could not be solved on that day. At this point, in the words of eyewitness Sue Embrey, this is what next occurred:

Warren Furutani, who up to this point had not said a word, was sitting in his swivel chair and said, “Mr. Penn Mott, you know, here are all these people who went to the camps telling you why we want the wording the way we want it, and you’re sitting there and you’re so insensitive, you’re not even listening to us. In my terms, you are a racist, you are a bigot. The same kind of thing that happened in 1942 is happening right here in this room. One man signed the executive order that put a hundred and ten thousand people in camps, and you, representing the State of California, are sitting there and saying that the people who suffered are not going to put the words they want on that plaque.”

And Mr. Penn Mott said: “I’m not going to sit here and listen to you call me names.” And he started to get up and walk away. At which point Assemblyman Garcia said, “If we don’t settle it here the next stage is the Legislature.” Mr. Penn Mott’s answer was, “It should never have gotten here in the first place. You can have it all.” And he walked out. That was it.

Part 6 >>

* 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

Alex Garcia concentration camp historic landmark jacl japanese americans manzanar Manzanar Committee nisei racism resistance sue embrey terminology warren furutani World War II