When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped lead a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, many of the leaders wore Hawaiian lei. The story of how these marchers ended up with the lei is surprisingly modest and simple.
One version of the story is that the Rev. Abraham Akaka sent the lei to Dr. King. Since Rev. Akaka was a giant figure in the Aloha State, it fits that these two icons might know each other. Dr. King paid a visit to Honolulu in 1959 to address the state legislature. Rev. Akaka also served as the first chair of the Hawai’i Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights and lobbied for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It turns out that the lei were delivered by a small group of kama’aina (photo right) who flew to Alabama to join the march: Glenn Izutsu, student body president at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa; Dr. Robert Browne, a psychiatrist; Nona Fendon, then a research fellow at UH; Charles Campbell, a high school teacher; and Dr. Linus Pauling, Jr., also a psychiatrist.
Fendon recounts the story in this post by the Human Flower Project.
“It was all on short notice and we showed up at the airport around 5 in the afternoon,” Fendon shared with the Human Flower Project. “There was no publicity or anything like that, we just said goodbye to some friends and left. Taking leis was just something that anyone from Hawaii would do almost automatically.”
Izutsu may have met Dr. King. Izutsu’s letter to Dr. King in 1964 congratulated Dr. King on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and expressed hopes that they would “meet again.”
And somewhere in Honolulu, the future President Barack Obama was four years old.
UPDATE: Please read this important post, “Recognizing Indigenous Pacific Struggles in the Lei at Selma.”