The State of Aloha
Nathan Bedford Forrest had light blue eyes, a long goatee and long hair that was fashionable for his times. Most depictions show him in a smart gray military uniform with three stars intricately woven onto his high collar.
Forrest was born and raised in Tennessee almost two centuries ago. He was a general who fought for the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. In April 1864, his men came upon Union soldiers. Accounts after that vary. Southerners say that the Union soldiers refused to give up and continued to fight. A federal investigation and Union men, however, maintain that they surrendered. The result is not in dispute. Instead of taking the men prisoner, General Forrest’s men killed up to 300 black soldiers.
After the war, Forrest worked as a lumber merchant, planter and ran a southern railroad company. He also joined the newly formed Ku Klux Klan and is considered the first Grand Wizard of the Klan — a claim he hotly denied. By 1874, Forrest’s railroad business went belly up, and he spent his final years running a prison labor camp in Memphis. This is the man that Tennessee chose to represent the Volunteer State in our nation’s Capitol.
A brass bust of Forrest in his confederate uniform adorns the Capitol Dome in statuary hall, where each state picks a representative. Over the years people have demanded his removal, but the Volunteer State has been reluctant at best.
A reckoning is moving through the Mainland. Cities and states have tolerated statues, memorials and other monuments erected in honor of Confederate soldiers and leaders. The protests that have flowered in the wake of the brutal police killing of George Floyd last month have caused many of our city leaders to rethink the way we recognize the past.
Many monuments in memory or praise of segregationists and Confederate military leaders did not come about until long after the Civil War. These memorials were often unveiled after Reconstruction and during the reclaiming of white supremacy.
This not just a Southern problem. This year, a city removed a statue built in the likeness and honor of its former mayor, police commissioner and ardent racist. His tenure as a police commissioner saw a sharp decline in hiring black officers. He authorized a public strip search of Black Panthers. When he ran for mayor, he boasted that he would be so brutal that he would make “Attila the Hun look like a faggot.” That was Frank Rizzo of Philadelphia — about as far from the Jim Crow South as you can get. The city built the statue in his honor in 1998.
So what about us? How do we measure up?
The answer is pretty good. Our statues commemorate Hawaiians in large part. Queen Lili’uokalani stands between her Iolani Palace and the state Legislature building. Robert Wilcox, the Mauian who took up arms against the white supremacists who orchestrated the overthrow, stands in his Italian-issued uniform on Fort Street. And of course, Duke Kahanamoku is in Waikiki with open arms.
But we weren’t always this good. Take Australian psychologist and resident academic Stanley Porteus. In his 1926 book, “Temperament and Race,” Porteus created the “Racial Efficiency Index,” which commented on the inherent racial characteristics of most of Hawaii’s ethnic groups. It’s not pretty.
For example, he wrote that trying to educate Filipinos was a waste of money due to their “primitive jungle fear.” The Japanese were “remarkably clannish” and “unreliable.” Hawaiians, he wrote, were “an immature race.” Porteus’s work was the perfect justification to divide the plantation economy and labor among ethnic groups.
Porteus was not thrown to the dust bin of history. Instead, the University of Hawaii in 1974 honored him by naming a building after him. It wasn’t removed until 2001.
There are other glaring exceptions. William McKinley still stands in front of a high school bearing his name. A dedicated, but small, group has worked for years now trying to bring the statue down. He is a symbol of not only racism, but American imperialism.
McKinley was the president that welcomed the overthrow of the kingdom and annexed the islands to the United States. For many, his statue and name represent aggressive American imperialism.
And what about the conspirators who overthrew the kingdom? Sanford Dole, president of the Hawaiian republic, has a middle school named after him. Some streets in Honolulu — like Gulick Avenue — are still named after the white militia that menaced the city during the overthrow. Shouldn’t we be rethinking these names?
What we are seeing is a direct confrontation of our racist history and heritage. And we must confront it. After all, William Falkner, a Mississippian, wrote that the “past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”