Hawaiʻi and Civil Rights

#171 in the Moʻolelo series

On the day that the first African-American and first female Vice President was inaugerated, and on the heels of Martin Luther King Day, it seems an appropriate time to look at the connection between Hawaiʻi and the Civil Rights movement.* Some know about the connection between Hawaiʻi and Martin Luther King: the lei he was wearing at the famous march in Selma Alabama was given to him by the Reverend Abraham Akaka, Kahu of Kawaiahaʻo Church.** In pictures of the march, behind King is a banner that read “Hawaii knows integration works.” Indeed, Hawaiʻi was thought of by some as a near-utopia of racial harmony – hard to believe for some perhaps, but compared to the American South in the 1960s there is some truth to the assertion. As historian John Rosa has put it, race relations in Hawaiʻi “are good but far from perfect” (Rosa in The Value of Hawaiʻi, Howes and Osorio, eds., 2010. See Rosa’s “The Massie-Kahahawai Case” on the umiverse).

In the 1950s, during the drive for Statehood, one of the confounding factors for the pro-Statehood cause was Hawaiʻi’s support for civil rights. It was thought that new members of Congress from Hawaiʻi would tip the balance toward civil rights legislation. (Hawaiʻi was also seen in some quarters as pro-Communist, with its strong unions and after trials like that of the “Hawaiʻi seven”)

Support for civil rights did in fact come about from Hawaiʻi Congressmen. As I wrote in “Spark Matsunaga:”

[Spark] Matsunaga was a staunch advocate for civil rights throughout the 1960s, as well as for the rights of Interred Japanese Americans during World War II (or as he would have called them, AJAs – Americans of Japanese Ancestry).

Senator Spark Matsunaga

Support for civil rights led to the State of Hawaiʻi being at the forefront of equity – it ws the first state to include gender in its non-discrimination policy:

Article I, Section 5 of the Hawaii Constitution provides that “no person shall be denied the enjoyment of civil rights or be discriminated against in the exercise thereof because of race, religion, sex or ancestry.” 

Hawaiʻi Civil Rights Commission

In a related post, Dr. Kawika Liu wrote a review for the umiverse of the film Selma, in which he relates in, in no uncertain terms, to the situation that was then brewing in Hawaiʻi:

More than anything, particularly with the killings of Ferguson and going back to Trayvon Martin, ‘Selma’ reminds us that the struggle for human rights is far from over. Moreover, this struggle is not simply about racism and other forms of discrimination: it is a struggle that is intimately linked with all human rights, including struggles against poverty, inequity, and violence. There is no coincidence between the roles of the military in Hawai’i, the TMT conflict, the shooting of Kollin Elderts, and the lack of affordable housing: occupation and colonization and the children of capitalism and a racist ideology. A failure to understand and link struggles leads to divide and rule and the reproduction of hatred; this was the conclusion that MLK and Malcom X had reached, and certainly contributed to their assassinations. For the biggest threat to the existing system is solidarity; the biggest ally is division.

Kawika Liu in the umiverse, January 19, 2015

*And first South Asian Vice President. It bears mentioning on that note that Barack Obama, the first African-American President, was from, of all unlikely places, Hawaiʻi.

**Abraham was the older brother of Senator Daniel Akaka

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