Latham Analyzes Murder and Citizenship in Hawai’i

Convo

Latham discussed a 1932 lynching and how it related to new conceptions of citizenship. by Minh Tran

Talera Jensen, jensenta@grinnell.edu

On Jan. 8, 1932, three enlisted Navy men and one woman, all white, kidnapped native Hawaiian Joseph Kahahawai and shot him. Kahahawai was 22 years old, and he had been recently acquitted of charges in the rape case of Thalia Massie, a white woman related to two of the murderers.

“There’s no doubt this was a lynching; this was a killing in cold blood,” said Dean of the College Michael Latham in his Scholars’ Convocation presentation on Thursday, Sept. 17.

Kahahawai along with four other young men of Hawaiian and East Asian descent were arrested after being involved in a traffic accident on the opposite side of town when the rape occurred, making their guilt in the incident improbable.

It was not Kahahawai’s trial, however, that initiated controversy but rather the subsequent trial of Kahahawai’s murderers, which caused uproar throughout the territory and revealed the underlying racial tensions that were present during this point in imperial American history.

“Unable to control the racial terms of Republican citizenship, confronted with growing challenges from labor, Hawaii’s white elite faced new anxieties about the instability of their economic productivity, political dominance and racial privilege,” Latham said. “It was in that context that the Massie and Kahahawai rape and lynching cases would ignite intense controversy, connecting Hawaii’s imperial status to wider questions about the racial contours of American national identity.”

During the second trial, Thomas Massie, Thalia Massie’s husband, claimed an insanity plea by saying he “involuntarily” fired the gun. In a four-hour closing statement, however, Massie’s lawyer reinstated Kahahawai’s death as an “honor killing.” All four of the killers were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten-year prison terms, however, the territorial governor of Hawaii was pressured by political forces to commute their sentences, and in the end they all walked free.

Since he grew up in Hawaii, Latham said he was interested in the event both from a personal and scholarly angle.

“This case in particular caught my attention because it generated such strong competing arguments about the meaning of American democracy and nationalism,” Latham wrote in an email to The S&B. “While arguments by military leaders and many U.S. congressmen from the South emphasized a national identity defined in explicitly racial terms, they were directly challenged by other voices making much broader claims to citizenship based in an ideal of democratic inclusion. A debate erupting in far off Hawaii, a colonial possession thousands of miles across the Pacific, ultimately generated questions about the very identity of the United States itself.”

Latham projected a photograph from Kahahawai’s funeral procession, an image that he considers a “chilling echo” of what the nation has witnessed quite recently.

“Over 80 years later, in our own era, in the wake of the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the essential and full promise of American civic nationalism, of a fundamental equality across the lines of race, I would suggest is still unrealized. As you reflect back, perhaps, on the events of racial violence that have erupted in the United States in the past year or so, that perhaps rings true,” Latham said.

Concluding his talk, Latham lamented that cases such as Kahahawai’s are often forgotten by time, yet it is our duty as both as scholars and proponents of justice to not let that occur.