The author in 1967 while serving in the U.S. Army Reserves in Hawaii (Photo Courtesy David Butwin)
The author in 1967 while serving in the U.S. Army Reserves in Hawaii (Photo Courtesy David Butwin)
In 1964, LBJ got his civil rights bill enacted, but the racial discord that still shook the country registered as a bare tremor in the mid-Pacific. When I look back, Hawaii’s involvement in the battle seems almost innocent; but at least there was lip service paid that year with two political forums that brought important and in some cases infamous national figures to Honolulu. To celebrate Civil Rights Week in February, the University of Hawaii and the Honolulu Council of Churches went overboard to lend balance to a conference, inviting four strange bedfellows — James Farmer, national Congress of Racial Equality director; W.J. Simmons of the White Citizens Council, who told an audience that Negroes were inferior; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who would win the Nobel Peace Prize that year; and John Ali, national secretary of the Black Muslims.

Ali, whom I interviewed at the airport, opened the forum before 3,000 at UH, calling for a separate Black state. When the Rev. King wrapped things up on the night of Feb. 18 in a speech to 5,500, I was in the overflow audience outside Central Union Church, up near Punahou, forced to cover his remarks from the front steps. On a slack Sunday five days later, I wrote to my very political sister, Miriam, about the proceedings, but led with a drowning I’d covered that morning at Ala Moana Park: “Poor Samoan guy. That’s like a Minnesotan who can’t swim. Lucky I got there too late to see the body.” I remember standing next to King in a crowd on the church’s portico before he spoke, trying to think of something to say. It was my month for pressing palms with famous men, Justice Douglas being the other. About my MLK moment, I wrote:

I shook hands with him beforehand and he wanted to know whence I was from. “Oh, I’ve been there often. Very nice place.”

He was talking about St. Paul. I could have dropped the name Roy Wilkins, the great NAACP leader who grew up in St. Paul, and I could have told him my father went to high school with Wilkins, but there wasn’t time for any of that. More from the letter: “If I hadn’t been frantically trying to take notes in the shadows of the church — too crowded to get in — I would have enjoyed his speech all the more. As it was, I was inspired. Goddam all the bigots to hell.”

My story, also written frantically, on deadline, was plugged into an inside page. The workmanlike lead:

The Rev. Martin Luther King said here last night he “could think of nothing more tragic” than the defeat or watering-down of the civil rights bill.

If the Senate blocked the bill’s passage or removed its teeth, he predicted that “racial segregation may suddenly turn malignant, and the cancer will spread through our whole society.”

Did that great voice reach me outside the church without amplification? Did I get his words down just right, scribbling on folded copy paper, or was I given a copy of the speech to work from? Those trivial points are lost to memory but it is a fact that 135 days after the only speech I ever covered sight unseen, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law.

King spoke two days later at UH, condemning the slow pace of integration. In 2001, George Simson, a UH emeritus English professor, published a piece in the Advertiser in which he listed the six top “good and bad” events he witnessed in his 38 years on campus. One of the “good” was that series of political lectures that brought the strange bedfellows to Hawaii in 1964. He wrote, “When King walked down the aisle of a packed Andrews Amphitheater, he created the one moment of inspired grandeur I ever witnessed at UH.”

In October, in something of a coming out party, I covered almost every angle of another week’s forum, this one on race, which again drew an assortment of speakers only Hawaii could have cobbled together. On the eve of the event, I went face to face with the American Nazi commander George Lincoln Rockwell, my third airport interview in three days, the other subjects being Johnny Mathis and Maurice Chevalier. Hawaii clearly did not know what to make of Rockwell, that peculiar American lightning rod, and I think I was a little puzzled too. Climbing off the plane, Rockwell was decked with a mountain of plumeria leis by a pair of UH coeds, as two police detectives and a patrolman stood by to dog him in the chance of an assassination attempt (he was shot and killed three years later by an ex-party member). Rockwell, who had honeymooned at Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s Bavarian retreat, was not decked out in his customary Nazi uniform with swastika arm band. But he chewed on his customary corncob pipe, an affectation borrowed from a hero, Gen. Douglas MacArthur. I chuckle now at my even-handed, borderline flattering portrayal of the kook, whom I described as “a handsome square-jawed fellow who looks much younger than 47.” Was it Fair Reporting 101? My lead:

American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell received probably the calmest airport reception of his tumultuous political career here yesterday and declared:

“I want to make it clear I did not come here to insult people.”

Then Rockwell got down and dirty, saying he favored deporting all Negroes to Africa and those who refused to go would be placed in reservations — “just like we did to the Indians.” He said he admired Malcolm X, had shaken his hand, but when I asked about the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Martin Luther King only days before, “he lowered his head and said softly, ‘that coon . . . King is one of the coolest, sharpest, slickest Black men I’ve ever known and one of the most despicable. Pretty soon the Nobel people will be hunting around the jungle for a winner.’”

Did I gulp, grimace, or just keep scribbling? Having done my homework in the morgue I asked about reports that his party wanted to sterilize the Jews, and he said, “We are not out after the Jews. I will say this about them: They are smarter than anyone else.”

Before I could chalk one up for my side he was saying, “But their morals are low. A Jew will resort to any cause if it will help him gain his objective. Most important, Jews are traitors. Of the 17 persons convicted of treason since World War II, 15 of them are racial Jews.”

When I got back to the office, my editor, George Chaplin, took me aside and said to write everything as Rockwell had spewed it, to expose his true nature. Then I was to show him my copy before turning it in to the city desk. I labored over the story as usual and then sat at the chief’s desk and watched as he picked through the copy, frowning here and there. When he finished, he pointed to the quote about the 15 treasonous Jews and said sternly, “You should have asked him for documentation on that and every statistical claim he made. Otherwise, good work, Butwin.”

The story ran low on page one under the head “U.S. Nazi Gets Leis, Not Eggs.” To the left were two photos of a pensive-looking, lei-bedecked Rockwell. I wrote home that day:

This morning I heard from many sources who attended his opening speech that he praised the story as the best and fairest he’s ever had. The kiss of death, and such irony that a Jewish lad wrote the story. Mr. Chaplin told me to put down all the slurs he used and let the public decide what kind of nut he is.

I still have the front page of the Final Edition (10 Cents) which was topped by a banner story of mine (no byline, quota system) about four Big Island haoles who’d been rescued from their downed plane by a Japanese sampan skipper. The page bristled with news of “Communist China’s” recent atomic blast and a report that ex-president Herbert Hoover, 90, was critically ill in a New York hospital. The Hoover story must have intrigued those of us who played an office game called the Ghoul Pool. The ghoul behind it was Gene Hunter, who kept a running list of aging statesmen, entertainers and athletes; you picked one out and put $5 in a pot; if your chosen geezer died, you collected. Our list that year probably included Felix Frankfurter, Amos Alonzo Stagg, and Syngman Rhee. Someone must have cashed in on Hoover, who died the next day.

In that heady week, I interviewed a pair of speakers who were more of my ken: the American Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas, and Gus Hall, chairman of the American Communist Party. I was awed to be in the company of the old campaigner, Thomas, 79, a six-time candidate for president. His “blue eyes flashing,” he said he was upset that Rockwell was on the program, had found out too late to back out but would have appeared with Robert Welch, founder of the far-right John Birch Society, who had turned down an invitation.

Gus Hall, a fellow Minnesotan, born Arvo Kustaa Halberg, came alive when I mentioned the good old progressive days of 1930s Minnesota politics. He chuckled over my Minnesota accent, and I teased him back for his Iron Range (“Raintch”) tones. My lead the next day quoted Hall as saying the American CP would not run a candidate for president as that could antagonize leftist elements of the Democratic Party. Hall said he approved of the Johnson-Humphrey ticket “but will not endorse it officially because that’s just what Goldwater’s trying to get me to do.”

I took my politics home that week. In a letter to my brother, Joe, I moaned that two of my roommates had asked point blank what my objections were to Rockwell. Each hit me with a question that would have sounded comical if it weren’t being asked by others in White America: “Would you want your sister to marry one?” and “What if one moved in next door?” I generally avoided societal issues with the pair after that. But I could hold my own and I wasn’t above baiting them into politically charged arguments. If the topic turned to sports, as it often did, I might gleefully point to the number of Black stars on the St. Louis Cardinals, who defeated the mostly lily-white Yankees in the ’64 World Series. I suppose I was an ethnic curiosity myself in that house. That fall, one of the two asked in all seriousness, “Do Jewish people have Thanksgiving?” Yes, we were strange bedfellows, two coast-haoles and two local haoles brought together largely for the divvying of rent; but peace reigned more often than not in the half-year we stuck it out in Kahala.