Los Angeles 1965

Soka Gakkai Culture Festivals

Audrey McIlraith. Photo by Debra Williams.

SGI President and Mrs. Ikeda enjoy a friendship exchange held in Los Angeles, October 1980. Photo by Seikyo Press.

On the evening of August 11, 1965, tensions arising from institutionalized discrimination, police brutality and restricted access to housing and education exploded into a massive riot in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, turning a 46-square-mile swath of the city into a war zone for six days.

At the time, the members of the burgeoning Soka Gakkai organization in America were preparing for the first culture festival outside of Japan in Etiwanda, California, a city 45 miles east of Los Angeles. The festival, which would bring together members from throughout the country, was scheduled for August 15, with President Ikeda attending. After hearing the news of the riots, however, Soka Gakkai leaders suggested that President Ikeda postpone or even cancel his trip. He responded: “It’s precisely because of the events in Los Angeles that I must go there and encourage the members right away . . .

“Now is the time for our fellow members in the United States to stand up” (The New Human Revolution, vol. 10, p. 83).

On August 14, President Ikeda arrived in Los Angeles, while the city was under a state of emergency due to the riots. On the following day, the culture festival “Evening Under the Stars” proceeded as scheduled with nearly 5,000 members from throughout the United States attending, in a picture of genuine equality and harmony. The festival began with performances by the Brass Band and Fife and Drum Corps, followed by a young men’s gymnastics group and a young women’s dance team. It was the realization of great unity and faith, and marked the beginning of the tradition of culture festivals in the SGI-USA.

Learning to Turn My Sufferings Into Joy

Audrey McIlraith
Los Angeles

Living Buddhism: Thank you for sharing your experience with us. Can you tell us about how you started practicing Nichiren Buddhism?

Audrey McIlraith: In 1958, when I was 11 years old, my mother’s cousin came to our home in Japan every day for an entire month to tell us about Buddhism. Our family was poor and hopeless. She told us that by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, we could become happy. Due to her consistent efforts, my grandmother, brother and I received the Gohonzon in 1958. My mother joined a month later.

My father was Japanese American, living in California. It had always been my dream to be reunited with him and live in the United States. Because of our practice, we were finally able to come to America in 1960.

What was the move like for you?

Audrey: My brother and I moved to America before my mother, so I was extremely homesick as my father and extended family were like complete strangers to me. I chanted every morning and evening, and the local Soka Gakkai members warmly embraced me. As a result, at the age of 13, I had the opportunity to welcome President Ikeda in October 1960 on his first trip to Los Angeles.

You also participated in the first culture festival outside of Japan, in Etiwanda, California, in 1965. What do you remember from that experience?

Audrey: At that time, my home life was pretty challenging. My father was a gambler, and my mother and father would often fight in the home. Soka Gakkai activities were my only source of joy and hope. In 1965, we started preparing for the culture festival. In July, we heard that President Ikeda would attend. I was in the Fife and Drum Corps, and we practiced for many hours, multiple times a week, to welcome President Ikeda with the best performance. The one thing I remember was that we chanted abundantly before every practice. Chanting, receiving encouragement and practicing forged my life.

I remember in the days leading up to the festival, members who came to practice from certain parts of Los Angeles had to be escorted home because of the Watts riots. Only after reading The New Human Revolution did I realize that President Ikeda was told to cancel his trip, but he refused, saying that he needed to go encourage the members precisely because it was a time of crisis. On August 15, the festival “Evening Under the Stars” took place with President Ikeda in attendance.

How did supporting this festival impact your life?

Audrey: My greatest joy was that, after my father supported this movement, he decided to join the organization. I’m sure it was due to the causes I made to challenge myself in the Fife and Drum Corps. Regardless of what my situation looked like, through actively engaging in these large events, I was able to build fortune and become resilient. I learned to turn my sufferings into joy. The culture festivals I participated in as a youth have become golden memories and my greatest prime points in faith, which I continue to return to again and again.

(pp. 14-15)