Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Struggle Behind Admissions Day

Today is more than an excuse for government workers to get a three-day weekend in August. It's Admissions Day - the day our islands were admitted to the United States as the 50th state.
The path to statehood was long and arduous. The first to formally bring about statehood was none other than Prince Jonah Kuhio in 1919. During the first six decades of the 20th century, there were 16 petitions for statehood and 33 bills in Congress. All attempts failed until 1959.
By the end of World War II, the failure to admit Hawaii had become embarrassing. The United States justified its intense involvement in the war by recasting itself as the champion of democracy over tyranny. Our movies and media repackaged America as the world's fighter of totalitarian government. We had become the representative of the free world.
Along with this bright and shining image came responsibility. If the United States sent its young men to fight dictators and destroy fascism, then how could it tolerate legalized racism in the American South? How could it ignore its own economic and ethnic inequality?
When the veterans came back to Hawaii, they demanded a change. (They weren't the only ones. Ethnic minorities and Native American vets found themselves in similar situations.) They saw statehood as the best way to get out of the sugar plantations and Honolulu slums of their youth.
Still, there was opposition at every turn. The problem intensified when the United Nations put Hawaii on the infamous list of "Non-Self Governing Territories." The list was an attempt to declare that certain places were still dealing with the adverse effects of colonialism and had not yet achieved their independence. Hawaii joined other quasi-independent places like Guam and American Samoa.
Hawaii was officially a colony - and the world was watching. Was it perhaps time to give up on statehood and go for complete independence?
In the late '40s and throughout the 1950s, new countries were breaking away from their former colonial rulers. African countries declared their independence. The Philippines had finally become its own nation free from centuries of foreign rulers like Spain and the United States.
The worldwide liberation movement made many in the United States nervous. A lot of these new countries had red flags and Soviet allies. The Cold War was just getting started, and the last thing many wanted was to see a strong socialist or communist cell develop in the middle of the Pacific.
Communism became the new excuse to delay statehood. The anti-statehood faction argued that Communists had taken over Hawaii's labor unions and parts of the Democratic Party. The Communists were the antithesis of a democratic society and there was no way Hawaii could be part of the union. It just wasn't ready. The hysteria got so bad that the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee came to Hawaii and held hearings. The fight for statehood continued.
After purging itself of any taint of the vanguard party, Hawaii came out on top and declared that it was ready for statehood. It drafted its own constitution in the 1950s and unfurled a petition in Honolulu that stretched for miles. This was it. It was far better for Hawaii to become a state than allow radicalism to take hold. Finally, Congress gave in and Hawaii entered the union the same year Fidel Castro took over Cuba.
It was the start of the era we live in today. Admission meant that people in the United States had the right to travel freely to our islands. It is no coincidence that the first commercial jet plane full of tourists to Hawaii landed in the first year of statehood.
Our first year of statehood brought rapid change. The threat of communism was long gone. Hawaii was no longer some exotic island chain on the U.N.'s list of modern-day colonies. It was an accessible, safe place where people spoke English, used the American dollar and voted on Election Day.
But there were unintended results. Statehood allowed a generation of hippies to drop out of college campuses and start up nudist colonies and health food stores. Perhaps the most ironic thing about statehood is that its constitutional guarantees of free speech, open courts and free elections created the space for the Hawaiian Renaissance and sovereignty movement to start and flourish. Statehood allowed its citizens to challenge, well, the state.
Today marks the first day of our state. And when you think about what it took to get here, and what being a state allows us to do, it's no wonder it's a holiday.

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