Tonight, I revisited one of my favorite documentaries, “Eyes on the Prize,” a series which covers the Black civil rights movement as it is known (I would argue the time frame is far too narrow), and it happened to be the segment that featured Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and fellow activists wearing thick, white leis at the forefront of this famous march.
I remember I first saw this image as a nerdy sophomore, watching this particular clip in the media center at Odegaard Library. In my little booth, I paused and rewound the footage several times. At first I thought they were wearing Indian “leis,” since it was the 60’s, but these were definitely HAWAIIAN ones – the nice, thick kind you get for special and important events.
HAH? Who gave them these? Were there Hawaiians there?
Well, I finally did the research and figured it out. The leis were a gift from Rev. Dr. Abraham Kahihina Akaka (1917-1997), who was the minister or Kahu of Kawaiahao Church, the “mother” church of Hawai’i, as well as the first state commissioner for civil rights. He and his wife had sent the special leis to Alabama to be specifically worn for the march.
In Hawaiian culture, the lei is meant to be a gift to honor the recipient. Leis are made from flowers, leaves, feathers, nuts, and shells – each material signifying or suggesting a particular meaning or association. There is actually protocol for wearing lei, for example, if someone gives you a lei, it’s rude and improper to then give it someone else. Pregnant women also have to be careful about wearing lei, as closed lei could “strangle” the baby (there are leis that are open strands rather than “necklaces.”) Akaka’s gift of lei in this particular instance, was not just a gesture of support, but also a visual way to mark these individuals as people who are doing something of great value and importance.
Rev. Abraham Akaka is most famous for his sermon given to mark the official day of statehood for Hawai’i in 1959. He wrote:
Aloha consists of this new attitude of heart, above negativism, above legalism. It is the unconditional desire to promote the true good of other people in a friendly spirit, out of a sense of kinship. Aloha seeks to do good, with no conditions attached. We do not do good only to those who do good to us. One of the sweetest things about the love of God, about Aloha, is that it welcomes the stranger and seeks his good. A person who has the spirit of Aloha loves even when the love is not returned. And such is the love of God.
This is the meaning of Aloha. I feel especially grateful that the discovery and development of our Islands long ago was not couched in the context of an imperialistic and exploitive national power, but in this context of Aloha. There is a correlation between the charter under which the missionaries came -namely, “To preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to cover these islands with productive green fields, and to lift the people to a high state of civilization” – a correlation between this and the fact that Hawaii is not one of the trouble spots in the world today but one of the spots of great hope. Aloha does not exploit a people or keep them in ignorance and subservience. Rather, it shares the sorrows and joys of people; it seeks to promote the true good of others.
I’m not particularly thrilled with his example of historical and cultural revisionism, since it conveniently accommodated the new power structure, but I wonder about the significance of his gift to the civil rights marchers in Selma six years later.
At the time of Hawaiian statehood, the vast MAJORITY of Native Hawaiians did not support the inclusion of Hawai’i into the Union. Had Rev. Akaka written his Statehood sermon at that time to ease the pain of what seemed inevitable? Or had he sincerely believed in his words, hoping to sway his community to the “future” with hope and promise? Part of me hopes that his later gift of lei might have been inspired by his involvement with the Black civil rights movement, showing him another possibility or potential for resistance and change as a leader. It’s an interesting link. The group of American businessmen who overthrew the Hawaiian government in 1893, were all descendants of American Southerners. The marches in 1965 were meant to challenge, defy, and bring to world attention the brutality of the Southern power structure. The presence of Hawaiian lei in these photos then take on further meaning (at least for me) as a subtle link between two oppressive systems. Hmm…
In the 1970s, there was a Hawaiian cultural renaissance spurred by the lifting of the ban on the Hawaiian language. This renaissance included cultural renewal and preservation, community organization, and political activism. Rev. Abraham Akaka is also famous for his support of the Sand Island “occupiers” (mostly Native Hawaiians) who faced fierce opposition from local and state government, as well as other key events in this new Hawaiian movement. Would his earlier self have done these things, or were they acts influenced (among other things of course) by the experience of marching on Washington in 1963, lobbying for civil rights legislation in 1964, or of being a witness to the violent events that occurred in 1965?
American history has been traditionally taught as single, coherent narrative of conquest and change – but that’s not true. Not really. A better way to think of the American experience is to imagine a multiplicity of historical narratives; threads of time running parallel to each other, intersecting and tangling in complex ways. For me, the story of these lei is not just an interesting (and forgotten) footnote to American history, but a reminder of all the connections that we have yet to make between all of the events and people in our collective pasts.