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March of the Lei

The story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s connection and shared aloha spirit with the people of Hawai'i

On March 21, 1965, on the footsteps of Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. turned to the thousands of protesters and spectators and said, "Walk together, children, don’t you get weary, and it will lead us to the Promised Land. And Alabama will be a new Alabama, and America will be a new America.”

It was an encouraging message and one in sharp contrast to the previous four-week turmoil that Dr. King and fellow protesters endured while attempting to march 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery. Despite the years of persecutions, lynchings and social injustice, nonviolent demonstrators persevered, representing a symbol of hope and peace in the face of fear and ignorance. Their courage would finally spark the nation’s attention to civil rights.

While many states throughout the country shared the same ideals as the Freedom Marchers, there was one state in particular that Dr. King truly admired. This place, which he once declared as an “inspiration and a noble example of racial harmony,” is none other than Hawaii.

Despite the ugly language from hecklers in attendance that momentous day, there was a symbol of love and beauty that stood out even among the thousands of peaceful protesters. On that day—befitting the third and what would be the final and successful attempt of the Selma march—lovely strings of the fragrant plumeria lei were donned by Dr. King and other civil rights leaders, including John Lewis and James Farmer. It was a message of support on behalf of the people of Hawaii, made possible by Dr. King’s friend Rev. Abraham Akaka.

“I’m so grateful Daddy kept a record of everything,” said Pualani Akaka, daughter of the late Rev. Akaka, as she read through copies of her father’s old appointment books.

In September 1959, after Dr. King’s initial visit to Oahu to celebrate and welcome the islands into statehood, civil rights activists, Rev. Akaka, Senators Daniel Inouye and Charles Campbell, and President of the Honolulu Council of Churches’ Rev. Lawrence Jones would form a lasting relationship with Dr. King.

On Sept. 15, 1959, at 8 am, Abraham Akaka noted in his book to meet Dr. King for his service at the YMCA. Five years later on Feb. 19, 1964, he wrote a memo to bring an extra pair of black socks and gown for Dr. King and meet him at Kawaiaha‘o Church.

Tucked behind the March 19, 1965, section of Rev. Akaka’s appointment book—two days before the Selma march—Akaka and her sister discovered a handwritten note by her father, assumed to have been retyped—as he did with all his handwritten notes—and sent via Sen. Charles Campbell who delivered the boxes of lei to Dr. King and his supporters in Selma. This is what was so poetically written:

Dear Brother Martin Luther King –

As you “bring good news to the meek, bind up those that are bruised, release to captives” our Prayer and Aloha reach out to enfold you.

These flower lei were made by mothers of the Kawaiaha‘o Church — for you and our brothers in the cause of our Lord Jesus whose commandment you obey:

“Feed my lambs

Tend my sheep

Feed my sheep”

History will honor this hour because His chosen servant was faithful and a great nation responded to that faithfulness.

Aloha, A. A.

“Daddy knew exactly what he was writing,” Akaka said. “And he wanted to let him and everyone else know that we, people of Hawai‘i, were behind him.”

Rev. Akaka, along with countless other families who shared the reverend's ideals, helped spawn the civil rights movement in Hawaii. Dr. King took notice of Hawaii’s unique ability to live harmoniously with one another, which is why he looked to the aloha state for support and guidance.

“[Racial equality] was as familiar as breathing in and out,” said Akaka, in reference to what her life was like as a teenager during the height of the Civil Rights movement in Hawaii. “I knew no other life. This is the way it’s supposed to be.”

In 2011 Akaka visited the National Civil Rights Museum and the Lorraine Motel—where Dr. King Jr. was assasinated. The motel was under renovation at the time but workers allowed her through to place a plumeria lei across Dr. King’s final resting spot. In 2015, Akaka visited Chicago for the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. With plumeria lei in hand once again, she was thrilled to be in the company of great leaders who were continuing Dr. King’s legacy of advocating equal rights. When asked if she believes that the legacy of peace will continue to thrive throughout Hawaii, she recalls her parents’ teachings.

“[They] would discuss and ask us if this is fair,” Akaka said. “[We would ask] what we could do to bring people closer to that power of love that binds one to the other. That’s what people of Hawaii can and will do to make this world a better place.”

In addition to its role in the civil rights movement, the Kawaiahao Church continues to serve as a historical landmark to its community. Sermons in the Hawaiian language are still held to this day. Designed by Rev. Hiram Bingham, it was commissioned during the reigns of King Kamehameha II and Kamehameha III. Fourteen thousand-pound slabs of coral rock make up its architecture, which was derived by brave divers who dipped three to six metres below sea level to chisel and carve out the material from the sea bed.