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Tamio Wakayama: A Remembrance

Tamio Wakayama in front of one of his Civil Rights Movement photographs. Courtesy Mayu Takasaki.

I first met Tamio Wakayama in the winter of 1964 in Atlanta, Georgia. We were both very recent volunteers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which was regarded accurately as the youngest and most militant of the civil rights organizations. We had come separately to the South a few months earlier inspired by the clarion call of the civil rights movement.

Coverage of the movement was incessant and it seemed omnipresent in the popular media. Events of the struggle for racial justice, marked by demonstrations, sit-ins, music and other forms of public advocacy were daily, seemingly almost hourly, occurrences. History was being made in a very exciting and adventurous way so joining the civil rights movement seemed irresistible; and who were Tamio and I to resist? Like many others of our generation, the Movement (as it became popularly known) had captured our imagination and engaged our energies.

Tamio went to the American South from Ontario, Canada in his Volkswagen, winding up in Birmingham, Alabama, in the aftermath of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in September, 1963. His introduction to the civil rights movement was much more dramatic and dangerous than mine but there were similarities between us. Most obviously we were both Nikkei and conspicuous accordingly in the starkly white and black Deep South. We were both in our early twenties (for the record, I later discovered that he was older by a couple of years, but who’s counting?) and we were both college dropouts.

To the benefit of both of us, SNCC was amazingly open and welcoming. It may shock many in the younger generations to realize that both of us knew no one in SNCC prior to connecting with it. We took no prior tests and had no qualifying interviews. We made no phone calls extolling (and thus exposing) our limited qualifications, sent no resumes, and had no references. We basically just showed up with our hopes and dreams and were taken in. We became part of a great social movement, not a tight institution, and our lives changed forever.


Our daily tasks were often fairly mundane. I took in reports by phone from SNCC field offices in the South and wrote them up. I also helped produce the SNCC newsletter, and materials for alternate electoral campaigns in those sections of the South defined by black voter suppression. I also later worked in SNCC’s Research Department where we explored the concept and the particulars of local white power structures throughout the region.

Tamio set up the SNCC darkroom, developing pictures from its expanding coterie of photographers who covered SNCC’s activities throughout the South. Visually recording the civil rights movement was an important task of the struggle; a form of truth telling for the world to see.

Within a short period of time, with his evident skills and visual eye, Tamio became a SNCC photographer, and he was one of the best. He had an eye for composition and light and a respect for precision and details. He moved about unobtrusively (or at least as unobtrusive as an Asian with a camera could be in the Black Belt South). When necessary, he moved quickly as all Movement photographers learned to do in the face of racist hostility. Tamio also had a sense of history, for that was what he was recording, and he knew it. He clearly had an artist’s sensibility and photography was a logical outlet for it. But it wasn’t the only one. On experiencing one of the many hot, muggy summer days in Atlanta, Tamio likened it to “Being hit by a warm, wet blanket.” I have never forgotten the imagery. Besides being poetically accurate, the phrase showed Tamio’s wit and his gift for precision and pithiness. He was always an acute observer and could have been a journalist.

Tamio and I became fast friends during that time which was probably the apex of the civil rights movement. There was always something going on, many more people became engaged in the struggle for justice and survival, so many intense changes took place in such a short time. We were learning constantly about the dynamics of race, poverty, and power; and how people organized to make change happen. I took as much in as best I could and I know Tamio did so as well. But many things could not be absorbed and fully understood then; that process took quite a bit longer.

But the pace of change was relentless and invigorating. There were demonstrations against racial segregation in public accommodations in Atlanta and other parts of the South. (The US Civil Rights Act outlawing such practices was passed and implemented in 1964.) There were consistent challenges to entrenched white authority including efforts to register black voters in the meanest and most resistant places in the region.

And there was the persistent threat, always faced by local black people, of racist terror, now increased when and where the Movement became visible. (The murders later that summer of Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman underscored that point.) And SNCC was often there in places of maximum vulnerability and danger, lending organizing skills and solidarity. By the time SNCC organized Freedom Summer in 1964, bringing hundreds of college volunteers, most of them white, from all over the country to Mississippi, Tamio had become quite active photographing the work in the state. Having been active previously in Georgia, he became, basically, SNCC’s Mississippi photographer. His photos of the places and the people of Mississippi capture both the stark realities of poverty and racism as well as the insurgent spirit of the local movement.

Back to the Future

Fall 2015 in Washington, DC (Photo by Lloyd Wolf)

While our SNCC tasks meant that we saw much less of each other for the rest of the year we were on the same trajectory. The Movement was an overwhelming experience, and it opened up so much more. There was no Asian movement visible at the time. Nor were there movements of women, Latinos, Native peoples, gay and lesbian people. The extended struggles against the war in Vietnam and the structural poverty were yet to come. But they did come and helped change the social landscape of North America.

Tamio’s path, post-SNCC, was indicative of the Movement’s power and effect on us. He became a photographer for the Company of Young Canadians, and bore witness to the injustices and the beauty of his country. Later, using the skills and the consciousness sharpened by the Movement, Tamio became active for years in chronicling the history and the present of the Japanese Canadian community using many cultural tools. And inevitably it would seem, he became active in the national Nikkei campaign for redress for the forced incarceration of Japanese Canadians during World War II. There is more, of course. Unfortunately, Tamio has passed and he can’t now speak for himself of the many specifics of his life. It was a very good life, and I smile as I think of him. He will always be my partner on a long, and continuing journey.


*This article was originally published on The Bulletin: a journal of Japanese Canadian community, history + culture on July 13, 2018.


© 2018 Masaru Edmund Nakawatase

activist Atlanta civil rights Japanese Canadian photographer racism redress SNCC Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Tamio Wakayama