Jean Sadako King was a Quaker and a powerful advocate for peace and environmental issues in Hawaii. Born Jean Sadako McKillop on December 6, 1925, she was the daughter of William Donald McKillop, the Canadian-born postmaster of the town of Captain Cook (a small town on the Big Island of Hawaii) and of Chiyo Murakami, the Nisei daughter of a coffee growing family in Kona. Jean McKillop and her brother Alan were raised in the Kaimuki neighborhood of Honolulu. The McKillop family was close—a friend later described Mr. and Mrs. Mckillop washing dishes together and singing to each other. (King herself later related how she had been promised she could obtain a driver’s licence once she turned 16, but her 16th birthday was on a Saturday and on the day after, the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor, closing down all of Hawaii’s civilian offices!) After graduating from the Sacred Heart Academy, McKillop attended the University of Hawaii. During her student days, she was active in a political organization, Hawaii Youth for Democracy, and became active in the labor movement, went door-to-door to persuade workers to join unions. She received a B.A in English in 1948.
Around this time, she moved to New York, where she received an M.A. in history from New York University. She married James King, with whom she had children in the following years. She also worked for Harry Bridges, leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union—because of her reputation for attention to detail, King was given the job of transcribing Bridges’ interviews with the FBI!
Pursuing her political interests, in 1950 King audaciously campaigned for a position as delegate to Hawaii’s territorial constitutional convention, the only woman candidate. She ran on a platform of equal rights for women, strong individual and minority group rights, and a free unsegregated school system. However, she was defeated for election.
King served as chairwoman of both the House and Senate environment committees and was one of the leaders in pushing for stricter environmental protection and land-use-control laws, plus sponsoring a bottle bill to promote recycling.
In 1968, King received an M.F.A. degree in theater arts from University of Hawaii. Around this time, she returned to the political arena. First, she worked as an aide to Tadao Beppu, speaker of the Hawaii State House. In 1972, she was elected to the Hawaii House on the Democratic ticket, representing the 14th District. Two years later, she won election to Hawaii State Senate. King served as chairwoman of both the House and Senate environment committees and was one of the leaders in pushing for stricter environmental protection and land-use-control laws, plus sponsoring a bottle bill to promote recycling. Another of her priorities was transparency in government, and she sponsored Hawaii’s Sunshine Law, one of the earliest state laws to allow public scrutiny of official actions.
As Lieutenant Governor, King distinguished herself by her support for progressive causes, opposing even more conservative members of her own party. One of her maverick efforts was to save the Hansen’s Disease patients at Hale Mohalu, an old military barracks in Pearl City, from eviction.
In 1978, King was elected Hawaii’s Lieutenant Governor. She was not only the first Asian American to serve as Lieutenant Governor of a state, but the first woman of color. Her swift upward climb politically, in the words of one commentator, showed that there was a place for women in local and statewide politics. She was aware of her status as a model. In 1980, she told the delegates to the first National Asian-Pacific American Women’s Conference, “Asian-Pacific women have not ben sufficiently visible in this society.”
As Lieutenant governor, King distinguished herself by her support for progressive causes, opposing even more conservative members of her own party. One of her maverick efforts was to save the Hansen’s Disease patients at Hale Mohalu, an old military barracks in Pearl City, from eviction. The state of Hawaii planned to tear down the facility. King’s staffer Charles Freedman later recalled driving the Lieutenant Governor to Hale Mohalu so that she could meet with residents.
“For decades, patients who suffered from Hansen’s disease had lived in those old military barracks when they were on Oahu. When we visited, they were using kerosene stoves because the state had turned off the power. I drove Jean in my old beat-up Datsun because she didn’t want a state government car out there. Those meetings were secret…Jean would talk with the group’s leaders, including Bernard Punikaia. The topic was stopping the state from its plans to evict the patients and tear down Hale Mohalu. Jean was trying to convince her own administration to hold off on the eviction and on the demolition of the old barracks until the patients no longer needed the facility.”
Although King, managed to suspend forced eviction and official demolition, the facility was torn down by the state once she left office, in 1983.
During her term as Lieutenant Governor, King clashed repeatedly with Governor George Ariyoshi over environmental issues and on policies to promote affordable housing. She also headed efforts to combat homelessness. In 1982, King audaciously decided to challenge Ariyoshi for the governorship. According to a later account, when Ariyoshi went across the state Capitol to sign his papers to run for reelection, King, as lieutenant governor was the election official who took his paperwork. With the entire Capitol press corps watching, King then got up to shake his hand, grasped it firmly, and said, "I would like to formally ask you for a debate." Although King received support from various activists, she was unable to match the incumbent governor’s fundraising prowess, and was defeated by a wide margin in the election.
...King retired from electoral politics and switched her focus to community affairs, becoming one of Hawaii’s most visible and prominent political activists. Meanwhile, she remained active in the Honolulu Friends Quaker community.
Following her loss in the election, King retired from electoral politics and switched her focus to community affairs, becoming one of Hawaii’s most visible and prominent political activists. Meanwhile, she remained active in the Honolulu Friends Quaker community. In later years, she co-founded and served on the board for Interfaith Alliance Hawaii, a state chapter of the national Interface Alliance, which was designed to encourage cooperation among members of different religious faiths. In 1990, she served as a delegate to the Soviet-American Women’s Summit. She also served as a leader of Save Our Star-Bulletin, a grass-roots community group that successfully pushed to keep Honolulu a two-newspaper town after Liberty Newspapers announced in 1999 that it planned to close the Star-Bulletin newspaper. She also was actively involved in trying to find housing for homeless people. In 2005, she led a movement to sponsor a series of concerts nationwide to mark the 86th birthday of singer-songwriter and progressive activist Pete Seeger—among the conditions placed on the concerts was that they had to be free, open to the public and that those in attendance had to sing « Happy birthday» as a tribute to Seeger. Ultimately, a series of four concerts was performed in Honolulu.
Jean Sadako King died on November 24, 2013, a few days before her 88th birthday. In tribute to her memory, Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie issued a proclamation ordering all flags in official buildings statewide to fly at half-mast.
Richard Borreca, “Jean King was Hawaii's liberal maverick to the end, » Honolulu Star-Advertiser, November 26, 2013
Tom Coffman, The Island Edge of America: A Political History of Hawaii, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 2003.
Greg Robinson is Professor of History at l'Université du Québec À Montréal and researcher at the Chaire Raoul-Dandurand. He is the author of By Order of the President (Harvard, 2001) which uncovers President Franklin Roosevelt’s involvement in the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans, and A Tragedy of Democracy (Columbia, 2009), winner of the AAAS History prize, which studies Japanese American and Candian confinement in transnational context. His book After Camp (UC Press, 2012), winner of the Caroline Bancroft Prize, centers on post war resettlement. His latest book is The Great Unknown (Colorado 2016).