The State of Aloha
George Fox’s mild features, shaggy hair and wide-brimmed black hat belie his radicalism. Fox’s interpretation of the Bible rejected established churches and their authority, he committed himself to pacifism, and adhered to the then astounding belief for the 1640s that men and women were equals. Authorities took notice. Fox and his friends were persecuted and imprisoned. He wouldn’t be the first Quaker to go to jail.
Fox’s message turned into the Quaker Movement or the Society of Friends. Quakers found refuge in England’s distant colonies and helped establish Pennsylvania. Their activism continued long after the tumultuous 17th century.
When English Quaker Daniel Wheeler visited the islands in 1836, he criticized the sugar mills on Kauai. He wrote that while Americans and chiefs profited, workers “are paid a small pittance for their labor.” He told the defenders of this early plantation system that “nothing compulsory could be just” and predicted that sugar would “eventually be the cause of promoting a state of slavery as oppressive as that which has existed in the West Indies.” His strong words were met with indifference. Hawaii’s sugar industry boomed. The Society of Friends did not have an official home in the islands for another century.
But when the Quaker tradition of advocacy and protest returned to the islands in the 1950s, the entire world looked to Honolulu.
It started with Albert Bigelow. The scion of a prominent Boston lawyer, Bigelow was an officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II. In 1954, he joined his wife’s faith and became a Quaker. Together, they adopted girls who had been orphaned and survived the atomic blast from Hiroshima. That changed him. In his journal, he wrote that seeing their burned and disfigured bodies “forced me to see that I had no choice but to make the commitment to live, as best I could, a life of nonviolence and reconciliation.” He resigned from the Navy.
By then, the United States was regularly testing nuclear warheads in Micronesia. Coral atolls were blown to bits, and radioactive material was spread in the air, land and sea.
In 1958, Bigelow and other friends announced that they would sail into Enewetak Atoll, the nuclear testing zone in the Marshall Islands. Capt. Bigelow sailed on their 30-foot sailboat The Golden Rule out of San Pedro, Calif.
They were stopped by the Coast Guard. Retired federal judge Delbert Metzger, Katsugo Miho, a local nisei veteran from Maui, and A. L. Wirin, a civil rights lawyer from California, answered the call and represented the crew in federal court. For months, the crew, lawyers and the federal government tangled in the U.S. District Court in Honolulu on King Street. The court ruled that they could not sail on to the testing atolls.
The crew nonetheless defied the court’s order and sailed on. They were promptly arrested and carted off to jail. They refused bail. The crew of The Golden Rule were found guilty and sentenced to 60 days in jail.
Their trial and protest resulted in picket lines in front of the federal courthouse. Reporters from around the world came to the territory to cover the peaceful sailing into a nuclear testing zone. Bigelow and his crew never made it to Eniwetok Atoll.
The message, however, got through. Another crew aboard The Phoenix of Hiroshima sailed out of Hawaii and entered the testing zone. That crew was also arrested by the Coast Guard, tried, and found guilty. Miho and Wirin also represented them. They were sentenced to six months in jail.
The peaceful protests and spectacle in Hawaii caused a chain reaction. Bigelow and the crew, after serving their time in Hawaii, would later find themselves once again protesting. This time, they joined students and activists challenging racial segregation in the American South. They were chastised, beaten and arrested. They went to jail together in, to borrow Bigelow’s words, the name of “peace, love and nonviolence.”
Nuclear protests continued too. The bold moves of The Golden Rule and The Phoenix of Hiroshima led to the establishment of Greenpeace, whose tactics to stop whaling and pollution at sea still ruffle feathers.
The Quakers are still around. They have joined the Black Lives Matter protests across the country. They will surely continue to engage in what the late John Lewis called “good trouble” for generations to come. Fox would have wanted no less.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”
** This report includes a correction from the original column published Friday, Sept. 18, 2020.