By Eddie Wong. Tamio Wakayama’s legacy as a photographer and activist is largely unknown outside of a small circle of friends. As we enter the 60th anniversary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) this February, Tamio’s accomplishments as a SNCC photographer and, more importantly, his character and commitment to social justice shine brightly and inspires us. As much as possible, I want to tell his story in his own words and have thus created the following piece from parts of different essays and interviews.
Tamio Wakayama was a Japanese Canadian and was one of a handful of Asian Americans who went to the deep South in the 1960s to join the Civil Rights Movement. In the coming months, we will feature additional stories of civil rights activists such as Marion Kwan, Ed Nakatawase, Victor Wu, Joe Ozawa, and Carl Imiola Young. Tamio and the other Asian American activists shared a common revulsion to the mistreatment of African Americans who not only lived under segregation but suffered racist terror and violence. Tamio, however, was also motivated to support civil rights because his family had been imprisoned during WW II in Canadian relocation camps.
I was born in 1941 the sixth and final offspring of an immigrant couple who had left a small fishing village in Kyushu to fulfill their dream of riches in the New World. With savings scrimped from years of toil in the logging industry, my father had managed to purchase an unassuming two-story structure on the Lougheed Highway some 20 miles due east of Powell Street and Little Tokyo. We lived on the second floor while the first was reserved for the family business: a grocery store in the front and in the back large vats for the making of tofu. Once or twice a week, my father would load up the new Ford truck to make his rounds of deliveries either to Powell Street or to neighboring farms and families. The dream was finally becoming a reality.
The dream ended with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In a few short months, our land, our house, the tofu business, the prized Ford – the accumulated wealth of a lifetime’s labor – was gone. Branded as Enemy Aliens in our own land, we were herded into the cattle stalls of Hastings Park while numerous relocation camps were being hastily constructed in the remote interior to hold the uprooted coastal community of Japanese Canadians. Eventually we were removed to Tashme, the largest of these camps located near the town of Hope. (note: The Tashme camp was built on a cattle ranch 109 miles east of Vancouver.)
When the camps closed at the end of the war, my parents resisted the federal government’s effort to “repatriate” all Japanese Canadians to Japan and instead we suffered a lesser banishment to a small rural community in southwestern Ontario. After spending a year working on a fruit farm on the shores of Lake Erie, we bought a small ramshackle house in the black ghetto of Chatham, which had been at one time, a terminus of the underground railway for runaway slaves. We were one of the fortunate few to own our own home. A neighboring family of six could only find an abandoned chicken coop. My father, like most of the new arrivals, worked at a nearby fertilizer factory and tannery that would on breezeless summer days blanket the entire city with the stench billowing from its tall brick smokestack.
Steveston, Little Tokyo, all are vibrant communities of the pre-war days were becoming a distant memory in the isolation of our exodus east of the Rockies. We would sorely miss these centres, which had nurtured self-esteem and offered refuge from the racism that had plagued the Nikkei since the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant to Canada. The sudden uprooting and incarceration of our community was an appalling tragedy but we, the children of the dispossessed, know the greater damage to our individual and collective psyche occurred in the lonely years of exile.
We entered a world still dominated by the new and powerful phenomenon of mass culture. Hollywood had led the way in planting in the public eye a vision of World War II as a titanic clash of Good and Evil. As Enemy Aliens we were the very embodiment of racial evil, and inevitably, many of the towns and cities in our eastward migration fought to bar us from their gates. The state, abetted by the crushing weight of mass media had affected policies that were nothing less than cultural genocide.
Much of my own life has been spent in coming to terms with the memory of growing up in Chatham. I remember the cries of “Jap go home” and a judo teacher who warded off his tormentors with a perfectly executed series of hip and shoulder throws. I remember my own battles to and from school fought with little skill and even lesser glory. I remember the first day of classes and the ordeal of registration – sitting at my desk, the lone Asian waiting in agony for the moment when I would have to interrupt the litany of genteel white names and voice aloud the alien syllables of my father’s name. I remember going to the movies with my friend Keibo to watch John Wayne repel wave after wave of the treacherous yellow hordes. Keibo fled the theatre screaming “Japs, Japs, Japs.” I stayed, and in my childhood memory John Wayne became enshrined as the ultimate immutable icon of noble manhood. But he was clearly beyond the reach of an Enemy Alien and my sense of self fell in the cracks of these contradictions
My long journey from exile and alienation began in the early Sixties, when I turned on the TV to witness a spectacle unfolding in a small segregated diner in Danville Virginia. With raw eggs and Coke streaming down their faces, black youth sat calmly at the forbidden lunch counter in a maelstrom of racial hate and violence. From the deep but yet unnamed Echoes of my own pass came the compelling need to go South.
In the early evening of Sunday, September 10,1963, I arrived in Birmingham Alabama 11 hours after four black children had been killed in a bombing of a church basement. At the Gaston Motel, the assembly point for the civil rights workers arriving from all parts of the nation I attached myself to the dungaree-clad members of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They were the scruffy and rebellious youth arm of the Civil Rights Movement, the shock troops who were challenging the entrenched power of some of the most lethal counties of the Black Belt South.
I spotted John Lewis and went over and said, “Mr. Lewis, I just want you to know that of all the people I heard on the March on Washington, I remember being most affected by your words. It was true, because I remember being carried away by the soaring oratory of Martin Luther King’s dream speech. But because it was so mellifluous and grand, you knew it was oratory. But then I see John Lewis, head of this organization called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I never heard of them before and he gets up. He has none of the precise diction of the other speakers, but what he’s saying is real. I can feel the righteous anger in there; the guy’s pissed off, and he’s telling it like it is. He’s saying — there’s a party of Democrats and Republicans. Where is my party? Where’s the party of justice? I said, yeah, you’re right. We talked and I was quite taken that he’s taking the time to listen and we’re exchanging our lives to some extent. At the end of it, he says, “You’re welcome to come to Atlanta and check out SNCC headquarters.”
After the funeral for the young victims of the bombing, I drove the leadership of SNCC back to their headquarters in Atlanta. My car was a rare asset for the impoverished organization, so I carried on as a chauffeur ferrying people to and from mass rallies, sit-ins and the city jail. When my meager savings ran out, I was put on the payroll with a subsistence allowance of $25 a week.
SNCC was in the midst of a fierce campaign to desegregate all the restaurants in Atlanta’s downtown core. The Atlanta jail was filling up with sit-in demonstrators, a good number of which were SNCC office staff. Since the staff knew they were going to carry on and more bodies were needed, it was decided to hold a mass rally on the nearby Black campuses of Spelman and Morehouse colleges. The rally was planned, but there was nobody left in our office to produce the advertisement materials to get the people out. I went down to the layout room of the Student Voice, our weekly newspaper, and found this powerful image Forman had taken earlier in the campaign. It was a tight headshot of a Klansman, fat cheeks, staring, growling out of a restaurant window. He’s in full regalia, white sheet, pointed cap. And it was like, wow, look at that! I took the image and figured out how to work the Varityper, which was this headline-producing machine. It was just rotate and click, and I had a big caption – “THE FACE OF ATLANTA – HELP CHANGE IT.
We had a huge turnout, and everybody loved the poster. And Danny (Lyon) looked at it and said, “Wow, that’s some boss stuff. You ought to try your hand with photography, and I’ll even lend you one of my spare Nikons.” And that is essentially how I got to be in photography. And, of course, I will always be grateful to Danny for that.
Other photographers came down from the North to document SNCC projects throughout the Deep South, and despite my protests, I was delegated to stay in Atlanta to administer the operations. We converted the women’s bathroom to a darkroom (feminism was still in its infancy) and after a one- hour crash course in the chemical mysteries of the medium, I was left alone to begin processing the hundreds of rolls of film that would be shot over that eventful summer. The countless hours spent in that tiny sweltering room with huge rats scurrying unseen beneath my feet proved to be an invaluable training ground for my future development.
I finally entered the field when one of our photographers in Mississippi returned to California after suffering his third beating and the loss of equipment at the hands of an enraged mob. I drove to Neshoba County where three civil rights workers have been killed that summer and in the terror and beauty of the Black Belt South, I learned to be a photographer.
My job as a photographer was to stay clear, get the images, and come back with the camera and me intact. I roamed around Mississippi for two, three months after the (1964) Freedom Summer ended, and it was one of my most creative times in the South. The violence there is like an undercurrent – as ominous and oppressive as the heat and humidity. If you’re going to get freaked out by the violence, you’d couldn’t function, so you kind of compartmentalize it. But I was always worried that somewhere along the line, I would get stopped by the Klan or whomever… but fortunately that never happened.
I spent two years in the South and grew immeasurably in one of the brightest moments of American Life. The Civil Rights Movement had inspired a generation of North American youth and altered their lives forever. And for a young, naive Japanese Canadian seeking to recreate his identity, the moment was especially luminous for the Black revolution was, in essence, a revolution of self. The growing cry of Black is Beautiful was aimed directly at the psychic core of segregated America where white was the ultimate moral and aesthetic standard and Black was the colour of the other, the lesser being. The demand of black power was more an inward call to radically transform the downtrodden sense of self inherited from a century of slavery and oppression. Only then could political equality be achieved and made meaningful. This quest would illuminate the remainder of my own journey and armed with the growing power of a new medium, I returned to explore the social landscape of my own country.
In the following years, Tamio Wakayama continued his photographic work documenting life among the poor in Toronto’s Cabbagetown and lived with communities in the Native communities of Saskatchewan and with the Doukhobors (radical pacifists who originated in Russia) in the Kootenay Valley in southeastern British Columbia. After a year-long stay in Tokyo, he returned and settled in Vancouver where he set up a photographic studio not far from Powell Street, the center of the Japanese and Asian communities. Gradually, he became acquainted with Tonari Gumi, the Nikkei senior center in Vancouver, and built friendships with the community elders, the Issei, as well as with new Japanese Canadian immigrants.
During this time, Tamio became the director and curator of the Japanese Canadian Centennial Project, which assembled a large photo exhibit and book entitled Dream of Riches: The Japanese Canadians 1877-1977. The exhibit would eventually be seen in 40 cities in Canada, Japan and the United States.
Tamio’s last major project was Kikyō – Coming Home to Powell Street, a 168 book of photos of the Powell Street Festival from 1977 to 1991 combined with oral histories of community members. I want to thank Mayumi Takasaki, Tamio’s wife and partner for 40 years, for providing the following images. The book was published in 1992 and is out of print, but I was able to find a copy on eBay. It is well worth seeking out not only if you love Tamio’s photographic work but also to learn about the Japanese Canadian community.
Tamio’s works for the Civil Rights Movement are also included in This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement (2011 University Press of Mississippi). The book is widely available at public libraries. Here is a short video from the Irving, TX Community Television Network on the exhibit held in their city in 2018. Tamio speaks about the origins of one of his iconic photos, along with fellow activist photographers Maria Varela, Matt Herron, Bob Fletcher, and Herbert Randall.
Finally, I want to share with you a video taken at SNCC’s 50th Anniversary Conference held in Raleigh, North Carolina at Shaw University in April 2010. I want to thank Courtland Cox of the SNCC Legacy Project for allowing me to use the footage of Tamio speaking at a panel discussion about the early days of SNCC. This video truly captures the charm and commitment that Tamio Wakayama embodied. He is gone. He is missed. He remains a beacon to all of us.
Author’s Bio: Eddie Wong is the editor/publisher of East Wind Ezine. Cover photo of Tamio Wakayama from the Japanese American National Museum.