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June 19, 2018

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Hawaii battled racism, anticommunism in statehood effort

In 1959, Old Glory added its sun-splashed 50th star. Once an agricultural kingdom, Hawaii was on the cusp of a tourism explosion when it joined the union. Now, the islands face an economic midlife crisis as those industries sag.

HONOLULU - When Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower welcomed Hawaii as the 50th state on Aug. 21, 1959, he snubbed the man who wrangled the invitation.

While Eisenhower signed the proclamation in the Oval Office, the islands' nonvoting congressional delegate, Democrat John A. Burns, sat alone in his office.

Burns had forged a friendship with powerful Texas Democrats - Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn - to break down the barriers southern Democrats placed on Hawaii's road to statehood.

Despite political repercussions back home, Burns agreed to let Alaska's statehood petition come before Congress first in 1958, with Hawaii waiting a year.

Eisenhower wanted the credit for statehood given to Hawaii Gov.-elect William Quinn, a fellow Republican and Eisenhower appointee as territorial governor.

The White House later called its failure to invite Burns, defeated by Quinn in the July election, an oversight.

"They knew I was there (in Washington)," Burns said. "But I'm used to some of those things, so I didn't go worrying about it."

Eisenhower's proclamation capped a century-long effort by what was once an island kingdom.

The first known proposal for Hawaii statehood was in an 1849 Whig newspaper, the Northern Journal of Lowville, N.Y.

In 1854, King Kamehameha III secretly negotiated a treaty with President Franklin Pierce's administration that could have made "The Sandwich Isles" the 33rd state. But the king died that year and his successor, Kamehameha IV, favored ties with Great Britain.

The group of white businessmen and lawyers who deposed Queen Lili'uokalani and created a republic in 1893 immediately sought annexation and statehood, but annexation didn't come until 1898.

As a territory, 90 percent of Hawaii residents were American citizens, but couldn't vote for president or their own governor. However, they did vote for their own territorial legislators.

The first congressional bill for statehood was introduced in 1919 by Delegate Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, but it died without a hearing.

By the early 1950s, Hawaii residents paid more in federal taxes than nine of 48 states and had a population - 500,000 - larger than four of them. Yet their congressional delegate could not vote on the House floor.

Around the islands, statehood supporters said this smacked of "taxation without representation."

From 1935 until 1959, there were 22 congressional hearings, 850 witnesses and 6,600 pages of testimony and exhibits concerning Hawaii statehood. The House passed statehood three times before the Senate concurred.

Quinn said Hawaii's biggest problem was that it didn't fit the mold of what some members of Congress thought a state should be.

"We were an island community in the middle of the Pacific and one that had a high percentage of Oriental citizens," he said recently.

Senate Dixiecrats assumed Alaska would send Democrats to Congress, bolstering their position against new civil rights legislation and against moves to eliminate filibusters.

They assumed Hawaii's delegation, whether Democrats or Republicans, would support civil rights, given the islands' diversity.

That diversity also worried strident anticommunists, who said the "Red Menace" would gain a stronghold in Hawaii, as evidenced by militant labor unions and their history of strikes and strife.

"In granting statehood to Hawaii, we actually invite four Soviet agents to take seats in the U.S. Congress," Rep. John Pillion, R-N.Y., declared on March 11, 1959.

Pillion said the 22,000-member International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, representing plantation workers, and the 4,000-member United Public Workers union were breeding grounds for communists.

Communist networks centered "in the ILWU and UPW have spread to influence both the GOP and Democratic parties, the city and county governments and into the newspapers, the radio and television and into every home," he said.

Then-Democratic Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina said the deep-seated Eastern cultures of many Hawaii residents meant they lacked the Western thought processes needed to withstand communism.

But others argued that Hawaii's diversity was positive.

"As the test tube of democracy in the Pacific, Hawaiians have proved that people of varied racial, cultural, economic and political backgrounds can live and work together to build a truly American society," Rep. George Rhodes, D-Pa., said.

Those arguments were buttressed during World War II by the loyalty and valor Hawaii residents showed on battlefields and at home during three years of martial law. Most notable were the exploits of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of Japanese-Americans, including current Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.

On March 11, 1959, the Senate approved statehood 76-15.

The next day, word of the House's 329-89 approval came from Burns in a telephone call to a joint session of the Territorial Legislature.

Air raid sirens screamed, church bells rang, horns honked, bonfires were lit, schools let out early, businesses and offices closed early and a makeshift, 50-star American flag was hoisted at the University of Hawaii.

The official 50-star flag wasn't flown until July 4, 1960.

"We of Hawaii will never give our fellow Americans cause to regret their demonstration of trust and confidence in the admission of Hawaii," Burns said.

Gov. Ben Cayetano was 19 and, like most longtime Hawaii residents, remembers that March 12.

He was delivering frozen food to a Navy home near Pearl Harbor when the housewife congratulated him on statehood.

"I just felt that I was a first-class American," he said.

Inouye was a member of the Territorial Senate meeting in Iolani Palace, the former seat of Hawaii's monarchs.

"I remember we all stood and sang 'Hawaii Pono'i' (the Hawaii anthem) and then we joined with the House and marched together over to Kawaiahao Church where we had a special prayer service for this great occasion," he said.

During the June 27, 1959, territorial referendum, Niihau, a privately owned island inhabited by native Hawaiians, was the only one of 240 precincts to reject statehood.

Inouye, elected as Hawaii's first voting House member, was at the White House ceremony.

Eisenhower handed one ceremonial pen to Vice President Richard Nixon and another to Rayburn, who declined it, Inouye said.

"So I reached over and tapped him on the shoulder and asked if I could take the pen and give it to our delegate, John Burns," Inouye said.

That pen remains in the state archives.