On March 21st, 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights activists wore leis on the third and final march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, organized to protest arbitrary voting requirements that effectively prevented black citizens from being able to register to vote. By the time the march reached the state’s capitol on March 25th, over 25,000 people were in attendance.
Yet the image of King and others – including current Georgia congressman John Lewis – wearing beautiful leis during such a somber and critical moment in America’s history is somewhat jarring. The previous two marches were marred by violence: police officers and groups of marauding racists attacked and killed nonviolent protesters. By the third march, there was national outcry to protect the activists, paving the way for the activists to complete the 54-mile march.
So where did the leis come from?
King visited Hawaii several times during his life. He struck a friendship with fellow reverend Abraham Akaka, head pastor of Kawaiahaʻo Church and older brother of future senator Daniel Akaka. They shared a vision of racial justice and nonviolent protest, so when the Selma Marches began, Akaka arranged for the leis to be sent to Alabama, hand-delivered. The Voting Rights Act became law less than five months after the Selma Marches.
King deeply admired Hawaii for its ethnic diversity and harmony. In 1959, less than a month after Hawaii became the 50th state, he delivered a speech to the state legislature, saying:
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.
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April, 1968. He was 39 years-old.