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Martin Luther King, Jr. Wearing a Lei in Selma, Alabama
August 3, 2013 - Ray Tsuchiyama
In front of the Wailuku Maui County government building there is a small monument (see photos), discrete, low-key, erected in 2006 in honor of the legacy of American Christian social and political reformer Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The monument has his image and the following words etched on stone: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed”.
Compared to my father, uncles and aunts, born and raised in plantation Maui – who easily reached their late 80s or mid-90s, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had a tragically short life: he died when he was only 39, shot by an assassin. He was well-educated; he graduated with a B.A., a B.D., and a Ph.D. from Boston University. He traveled globally and met leaders and community organizers in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe.
In 1964 when he was 35 years old he was honored with a Nobel Prize.
In spite of many years of political and social injustice in the United States – Maui residents from Hawai'i’s plantation era can relate to (Maui’s only fresh-water pool was not accessible to plantation workers nor their families; Nisei soldiers from Hawai'i ready to die in combat fighting Hitler and Fascism in Europe had to use different facilities in the segregated town of Shelby, Mississippi; the Pacific Club did not allow non-Caucasian members until 1968; great barriers existed for many applicants to Big Five firms and banks even until the 1970s) -- King believed in non-violence, and working within the United State democratic system to pass legislation that would outlaw discrimination and disenfranchisement for American citizens.
After all, we began our country with the Declaration of Independence of 1776 with the words “All men are created equal . . .”
Ironically, days after King's assassination, the U.S. Congress finally passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 – a year before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.
Title VIII of the 1968 Act, commonly known as the Fair Housing Act, prohibited discrimination in housing and housing-related transactions on the basis of race, religion, or national origin (later expanded to include sex, familial status, and disability) – and was passed four years after the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which addressed "unequal application of voter registration requirements, discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, state and municipal governments from denying access to public facilities on grounds of race, color, religion or national origin, and encouraged the desegregation of public schools".
The 1964 Civil Rights Act covered a lot of ground, but the one area that still hurt many Americans was in residential discrimination, so Rev. King lobbied for the new Civil Rights Act of 1968.
But that is not the end of the King-Hawai'i story, symbolized by a small monument in Wailuku on Maui. In his short 39 years, King visited Hawai'i several times, the first at Statehood in 1959 when he made a significant speech.
When there were barely 40,000 residents on Maui, Reverend King looked at Hawai'i as an “inspiration and as a noble example”:
I come to you with a great deal of appreciation and great feeling of appreciation, I should say, for what has been accomplished in this beautiful setting and in this beautiful state of our Union.
As I think of the struggle that we are engaged in in the South land, we look to you for inspiration and as a noble example, where you have already accomplished in the area of racial harmony and racial justice, what we are struggling to accomplish in other sections of the country, and you can never know what it means to those of us caught for the moment in the tragic and often dark midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, to come to a place where we see the glowing daybreak of freedom and dignity and racial justice.
Barely six years later, just as the Vietnam War would dominate the nightly TV news, in February 1965 a voting rights activist named Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot dead by Alabama state police in the town of Selma, Alabama.
A month afterward, a young John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC – a major university student association for civil rights of that time) organized a broad coalition of civil rights groups to march 54 miles from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery.
In spite of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Acts that outlawed voting discrimination, Alabama state officials continued to deny U.S. citizens the right to vote at the ballot box, so community activists like Jimmie Lee Jackson was organizing voter-registration drives, similar to volunteers seated at tables at the Maui Mall would do this fall.
It is utterly unimaginable to think in 2013 that an American policeman would take out a pistol and shoot an unarmed individual who was asking people passing by to register to vote in the next election. Today we would think of such an incident as a far-away news item from perhaps Kazakhstan or Zimbabwe, not an American state.
The first march occurred on March 7, 1965 — known as "Bloody Sunday" — when 600 marchers were attacked by state and local police with billy clubs and tear gas. Some marchers were severely injured and were taken to local hospitals. None made it very far in reaching the state capital, their objective. It was like a gauntlet, with police and even armed residents helping to shoot or beat protesters.
The “Selma March” was an early event of our “instant/Live” media age where television reporters (some who were tear-gassed and beaten, as well) were “on the ground” outside the town of Selma from national news channels, like CBS and NBC. American TV viewers from Honolulu to Boston were horrified. Even TV viewers in Japan, France, India and Brazil probably saw the images, so it was became a world-wide phenomenon, an early “viral” media news story.
The second march was held the following week, and resulted in 2,500 protesters turning around after crossing a bridge – again rows of policemen, tear gas, beatings.
Finally, the U.S. Federal government – after continued TV news coverage and a death of a supporter from Boston – acted. Marching about ten miles day, the group was protected by 2,000 U.S. Army soldiers with rifles and pistols; 1,900 members, similarly-armed, of the Alabama National Guard under Federal command; and many FBI agents and Federal Marshals.
The marchers arrived, exhausted, in Montgomery on March 24 and at the Alabama state capitol the day afterwards for a series of speeches, again filmed by television crews.
During this “third Selma march”, Reverend King and other marchers were photographed with beautiful white flower leis around their necks (see photos). The leis were gifts from Reverend Abraham Akaka, who was on the Hawai'i State Human Rights Commission (the first in the U.S.) and met King in Honolulu in 1964 when King spoke at a Honolulu conference.
For four short years until King’s death in 1968, both the Reverend King and Reverend Akaka, both Christian ministers, had developed a deep friendship, solidarity about love and non-violence.
Of course, we in Hawai'i know of the significance and deep meanings of the flower lei in Hawaiian culture. And so in midst of the terrible beatings, even deaths along this horrific march for human rights in the spring of 1965, shown throughout the world and which accelerated legislation in the U.S. Congress, flower leis from Hawai'i were draped on marchers as we would say now – “channeling” Aloha and peace from across the Pacific to the city of Montgomery, Alabama.
There are Reverend King’s simple words uttered during a speech at the end of a 1963 civil rights march at the Washington Monument: “I have a dream”. These four words – in the context of his speech – was certainly inspirational, and inclusive, much about Hawai'i, a place that Rev. King loved for our spirit of Aloha, Pono.
These four words are also on the Reverend Martin Luther King. Jr. monument in quiet Wailuku, the County seat of Maui County.
See for more background:
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Martin Luther King wearing a lei, with others, on a march. In 1965, Hawaii must have been a very exotic, far-away place, as depicted in TV shows like "Hawaiian Eye" or movies like Elvis Presley's "Blue Hawaii" (released in 1961 with a cameo by Hilo Hattie, the iconic Hawaiian dancer/singer/actress/comedienne)