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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 12, 2009

When statehood came calling

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

House Speaker Elmer Cravalho, with Rep. Spark Matsunaga next to him, took the 1959 phone call.

ADVERTISER LIBRARY PHOTO | March 11, 1959

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The phone on which Elmer Cravalho, as speaker of the territorial House took the play-by-play call on the U.S. House vote 50 years ago, has been kept as a part of history and has been on public display in the past.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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BEGINNING SUNDAY

Today is the anniversary of one of the first official steps toward statehood leading up to admission day, Aug. 21, 1959. To mark what began a 50-year transformation, we will examine the sensitivities of this anniversary and take a look at upcoming statehood events in stories on Sunday. Also, in the Hawai'i section weekly beginning Sunday, we will feature reflections by local writers and readers, and daily historic photos from the past 50 years.

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Fifty years ago today, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 323-89 to pass the Hawaii Admission Act, setting the stage for a historic affirmation by Hawai'i voters that would radically alter the course of local politics, culture and society.

Yet five decades of fast-forward progress has done little to diminish what former Hawai'i House of Representatives speaker (and later Maui mayor) Elmer Cravalho remembers of that day, and of his historic conversation with the Hawai'i delegate to Congress at the time, John A. Burns.

A day earlier, the U.S. Senate had voted 75-15 in favor of the legislation, a milestone in what had been, with varying degrees of popular support, a decades-long push for the Territory of Hawai'i to formally join the United States.

If the House followed suit and President Dwight Eisenhower signed off, as everyone assumed he would, it would be up to Hawai'i voters to accept or reject the offer of full integration with all its guaranteed rights and privileges.

"It was big," Cravalho said. "It was very exciting and very historic."

With the Legislature already in session, the territorial House, then at 'Iolani Palace, was packed with representatives eager to be among the first to hear the news.

It was still morning in Honolulu when Cravalho took to the rostrum to accept the call by Burns, who made the connection just as the vote in Washington was getting under way.

As Burns reported the action vote by vote, Cravalho on the other end relayed the information to his increasingly excited legislative peers.

"It was a very significant and emotional act for our House members," Cravalho said. "At the announcement of the final tally ... (the representatives) rose as a single body without any prompting, sang the 'Star-Spangled Banner' and 'Hawai'i Pono'i,' then walked across the street to Kawaiaha'o Church."

The U.S. House vote was decisive 323-89 and its ripples set the Islands awash in optimism and excitement.

'TREMENDOUS REJOICING'

As news quickly broke around town, Hawai'i residents of all stripes, many of whom had ardently supported previous statehood drives, celebrated what was seen as an opportunity to gain representation in Washington, attain full voting rights, and combat the theretofore unchecked rule of the Big Five companies in Hawai'i.

Cravalho said the scene on the street was one of "tremendous rejoicing and elation."

The affirmative vote came despite the early vocal opposition of Southern legislators suspicious of Hawai'i's multi-ethnic population Japanese residents, in particular and the then-territory's supposed reputation as a breeding ground for labor organizers and socialists.

But in Hawai'i, where a generation of young men had honorably served in the U.S. military only to return home with fewer rights and protections than their Mainland counterparts, the desire to realize full American citizenship and in so doing resist the entrenched power system burned with great intensity. (The feeling wasn't unanimous the Big Five companies initially opposed the idea, as did, quietly, some Native Hawaiians and other groups.)

"During World War II, citizens, in particular Americans of Japanese ancestry, did tremendous work in wartime in representing and serving their country," Cravalho said. "Yet, Hawai'i had always been represented in Congress by a delegate. In effect, all of us were seen as second-class citizens. The effect (of getting statehood) was not just getting full participation, it was also a recognition and tribute to the AJAs and nisei."

Key to diffusing the opposition was Burns' strategic concession to allow Alaska to join the union first as the 49th state.

Eisenhower signed the Hawai'i Admission Act into law six days later, formally extending to Hawai'i an invitation to join the union.

HAWAI'I VOTED IN JUNE

On June 27, 1959, 140,744 Hawai'i voters cast ballots in a statewide plebiscite to determine whether the territory would become a state. By the time the polls closed, 94 percent of voters favored accepting the invitation to join.

On Aug. 21, Eisenhower officially signed off on the dissolution of the Territory of Hawai'i and the establishment of the 50th state.

Cravalho, who would continue to play a pivotal role in local politics for the next four decades, recalls the prevailing sentiment of that extraordinary spring and summer.

"Now us guys are equal," Cravalho said.

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com.