From the Desk of Joy Schulz: Protesting the Flag in History

The following contribution comes from Joy Schulz, author of Hawaiian by Birth: Missionary Children, Bicultural Identity, and U. S. Colonialism in the Pacific (September 2017). Schulz is a member of the history faculty at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha.

I grew up proudly reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with hand over heart every day in elementary school. As a white Midwesterner, it never occurred to me that some Americans might feel differently when told to do so. That others would willfully protest the U.S. flag or national anthem would have shocked me. Such dissension still remains shocking to many Americans today. Perhaps a story from our nation’s history will help bridge this cultural divide.

In 1893 President Grover Cleveland sent his emissary James Blount to the Hawaiian Islands to investigate reports that U.S. marines had participated in the overthrow of the indigenous Hawaiian monarchy to help establish a republic led by white Hawaiians, many of whom were the descendants of American missionaries to the islands. The revolutionaries had deposed Queen Lili‘uokalani and elected Sanford Ballard Dole, son of American immigrants to the islands, as the Republic of Hawai‘i’s first president.

The goal of the revolutionaries was not the continued political independence of the islands. The revolutionaries wanted U.S. annexation, which would ensure trade reciprocity for sugar exports to the United States and, as a result of U.S. immigration laws, exclude from citizenship the growing number of Chinese and Japanese residents living in the islands and working on Hawaiian sugar plantations.

Blount’s report to President Cleveland was damning. Blount determined that under threat of armed U.S. marines, Lili‘uokalani had abdicated her throne, not to the “annexationists,” but to the U.S. government, whom she hoped would investigate her overthrow and restore her rightful authority.

Cleveland demanded that Dole put the Queen back on her throne. President Dole refused, arguing, ironically, that only U.S. military intervention could force him to do so. Cleveland referred the issue to Congress.

sanford dole

Sanford Dole at Iolani Palace, August 1898 (Source: Mission Houses Museum)

Despite the efforts of Dole’s government to secure annexation, Americans were leery of Hawaiian residents joining the union. The issue of race underpinned all political debates, and white Hawaiians worked hard to convince the U.S. government that mandatory English-language instruction in all public schools would help native Hawaiians and Asians assimilate, just as public schools in the United States were targeting new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.

Ultimately the deciding issue for American politicians became Pearl Harbor. During the 1898 Spanish-American War, Congress saw firsthand that Pearl Harbor, an American military port by treaty with the Hawaiian monarchy, was a critical waystation for the U.S. navy. Allowing the Hawaiian Islands to fall into the hands of another European power was unthinkable. In 1898, by Congressional resolution, the United States annexed the islands.

Just weeks after annexation, Sanford Dole, now governor of the U.S. Territory of Hawai‘i, presided over an American flag-raising ceremony at Iolani Palace, the former home of Queen Lili‘uokalani. White missionary descendants Orramel and Ann Gulick witnessed the unfurling of the U.S. flag as a band played the Star Spangled Banner. They called the ceremony “truly impressive.” Although the Gulicks attached “great hopes” to their new government, the couple also noted that “tears of sorrow ran down the faces” of the native Hawaiians in attendance.

Today in the islands, native Hawaiians have revived their indigenous language and established schools to teach Hawaiian children both their language and cultural heritage. Some, more controversially, argue for greater political autonomy based upon race.

Historical perspective matters. While Pacific Islanders today represent a small percentage of our diverse American republic, their history remains part of our nation’s history. The Pacific Ocean remains a critical channel for world trade, and Pearl Harbor remains a significant military installation near lands and seas contested by China, Japan, and Korea. I hope that American patriotism means listening to and attempting to understand all those who comprise our nation, even as we utilize our freedoms to disagree amongst ourselves.