by Ryan Yasukawa (Originally published by Hawai'i Free Press for Martin Luther King Day, 2006)
Today is Martin Luther King Day, a time to reflect on the struggles and triumphs of man’s quest for equality of opportunity. A little-known piece of this history is the politics of the civil rights struggle has much in common with Hawai`i’s path to statehood.
In 1959 the 85th Congress of the United States voted the Territory of Hawai`i into the Union. Despite overwhelming support by 94% of Hawai`i voters in a 1959 statehood plebiscite, and very strong support in two earlier statehood plebiscites, the U.S. Senate debated the admission of Hawai`i and Alaska in a way that mirrored the then-burgeoning civil rights debate.
Hawai`i's efforts to obtain statehood involved a long political struggle which had to overcome many obstacles and prejudices. In 1919, Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole (R), Hawai`i's delegate to Congress, introduced Hawai`i's first statehood bill in the 65th Congress. It, and another bill he submitted the following year, died in the House Committee on Territories. In December of 1931, Delegate Victor Houston introduced another statehood bill in Congress. It also did not get very far.
The statehood bill of Samuel King in 1935 also didn't make it; however it did prompt a Congressional committee to visit Hawai`i in October, 1935. Their hearings brought out a number of reasons why statehood would be postponed--including prejudice against Hawai`i’s large number of citizens of Japanese ancestry.
Statehood bills were introduced again in 1947 and in 1950. It was only in 1959, during the first session of the 86th Congress that Hawai`i statehood was finally acted upon with dramatic swiftness. After some debate, the Senate bill passed on March 11 by a vote of 76 to 15. The House bill reached the floor on the same day and the House substituted the Senate version for it and passed it on March 12 by a vote of 323 to 89.
The State of Hawai`i being the 50th state and not 49th is no coincidence. With a Republican President Eisenhower and a Democrat majority in Congress, Democrats first sent an Alaska Bill to the President to see if he would sign the Bill admitting a state which at that time was expected to elect two Democrat Senators. If Eisenhower signed the Alaska Bill, a Hawai`i Bill would be sent up thereafter. But there was another factor. In the late ‘50s civil rights bills were being introduced to the Congress to overcome Southern Democrats’ suppression of the pro-Republican African-American vote. Hawai`i Statehood was expected to result in the addition of two pro-civil-rights Senators from a state which would be the first to have majority non-white population. This would endanger the segregationist “Dixiecrat” Senate minority by providing two more votes to invoke “cloture” and halt a Senate filibuster, allowing Bills to come to a vote. These expectations played a role in creating the 50th State of Hawai`i rather than the 49th State of Hawai`i. (You can still find Hawai`i 49th State memorabilia if you look hard enough.)
On March 18, 1959 the Hawai`i Statehood Bill was signed by President Eisenhower. The New York Times wrote, “Until this year Hawai`i statehood bills had passed the House three times in the last decade. On one occasion the bill passed the Senate also, but was tied to an Alaskan measure that brought death to both. Much of the opposition came from Southerners in Congress who took a dim view of the mixed racial strains of Hawai`i's population. Southerners also fought its admission on the same ground they fought Alaskan statehood. That is, the additional seats would weaken the South's already diluted strength in the Senate.”
The opponents to the civil rights efforts who also opposed Hawai`i Statehood included Senators such as then-Democrat Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who earlier had waged a record twenty four hour and eighteen minute filibuster against a 1957 civil rights bill. Senate approval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was held up by a fourteen hour and thirteen minute filibuster waged by Hawai`i Statehood opponent Robert Byrd (D-WV), a former KKK “Kleagle”, until a bi-partisan coalition led by Senator Everett Dirksen (R-IL) and supported by Hawai`i’s Senators, Hiram Fong (R) and Daniel Inouye (D), gathered 60 votes to invoke cloture, ending the filibuster. The Congressional vote totals show a proportionally larger support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act by the Republican Party. The House of Representatives’ vote by party was 136 to 35 (80% support) by Republicans but only 153 to 91 (63% support) by Democrats. Prominent Senate opponents of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 who also opposed Hawai`i Statehood included J. William Fulbright (D-AR), Albert Gore Sr. (D-TN), Sam Ervin (D-NC), and Richard Russell (D-GA).
Hawai`i’s heritage shares a great deal in honoring the spirit of the struggle for the equality of opportunities. In 1959, when Hawai`i elected Fong Senator, he became the first Asian-American to serve in the Senate. Hawai`i also elected my own childhood hero Daniel Inouye (D) who in 1959 became was the first Japanese-American to serve in the House of Representatives. Patsy Mink (D-HI) and Pat Saiki (R-HI) were the first Asian-American women to serve in Congress.
The fight against racism and discrimination is one that does not belong to one party or group over another. Let our 50th State be a testament to the triumph of the American experiment of democracy.
Newsreel footage of 1959 Statehood Celebrations;
Results of 1959 Statehood Referendum:
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