Aloha from Hawai`i.
The longer I live, the more clearly I see how we're all connected, irrespective of geography or even time. It has nothing to do with the magic of Facebook and Twitter. It's just the reality of the human condition and the human spirit. We rely on each other for physical and emotional support and, perhaps most important, for inspiration.
Hawai`i is the most remote land mass in the world. We are literally in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Yet, this state played an important role in one of the most important social causes in history, the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s. Reading about this legacy, I've been reminded that positive actions - no matter how small - are always worthwhile. They just might inspire the next great leader.
Both President Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Hawai`i shortly after statehood. Both men made speeches here that were directly tied to the civil rights struggles and triumphs that followed shortly thereafter. In addition, Dr. King developed a friendship with Rev. Abraham Kahu Akaka of Honolulu that is still leading to greater awareness and tolerance among people today.
Dr. King addressed the legislature of the newest and most diverse state 62 years ago this month:
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.
. . .
Just four months ago, I traveled throughout India and the Middle East and talked with many of the people and leaders of that great country and other people in the Middle East, and these are the things they talked about: That we must solve this problem if we are to stand and to maintain our prestige. And I can remember very vividly meeting people all over Europe and in the Middle East and in the Far East, and even though many of them could not speak English, they knew how to say ‘Little Rock.’
And these are the things that we must be concerned about – we must be concerned about because we love America and we are out to free not only the Negro. This is not our struggle today to free 17,000,000 Negroes. It’s bigger than that. We are seeking to free the soul of America. Segregation debilitates the white man as well as the Negro. We are to free all men, all races and all groups. This is our responsibility and this is our challenge, and we look to this great new state in our Union as the example and as the inspiration.
Dr. King was of course already an influential figure by 1959. But he went on to even more daring and noteworthy achievement in the '60s as the leader of the civil rights movement, and it's clear from his own words that Hawai`i was part of the reason he was emboldened. (Of course, the legislators benefited from Dr. King's inspiration too, as evidenced by some of the state's achievements in subsequent years. For example, Hawai`i established a Civil Rights Commission - to which Rev. Akaka was appointed in 1964 - and was the first state to enact an Equal Rights Amendment.)
Dr. King was among the leaders who prodded President Kennedy to introduce and fight for civil rights legislation. In June 1963, the President was ready to do so. Before introducing his proposal to the nation, he traveled to Honolulu for a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors for the sole purpose of seeking the mayors' support. The location of the convention was relevant. Like Dr. King, President Kennedy cited Hawai`i's positive example. Traveling 5,000 miles, for a stay of less than 24 hours, he made an impassioned plea, stating clearly that "the cause is just" and noting that “Hawaii is what the rest of the world is striving to become.” The audio file of the entire compelling speech is archived at the JFK Library.
Though the President didn't live to see his legislation enacted, the bill made considerable progress through Congress under his direction during the summer and fall of '63. In President Kennedy's memory, President Lyndon Johnson was finally able to get the bill through Congress and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2 - a little more than a year after JFK's Honolulu speech to the mayors.
At the beginning of the following year, MLK and the civil rights movement focused on the Selma Voting Rights Movement - which became a fierce struggle that drew greater national support for civil rights generally and voting rights legislation particularly.
On March 7, 1965, civil rights advocates, led by John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, attempted to march from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery in support of voting rights and in protest of the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights activist shot by Alabama state troopers in February. The marchers were met with violent resistance from local law enforcement and white residents, with many severely injured.
The violent images horrified people across the nation. Dr. King attempted a second march two days later, joined by an influx of concerned people from across the country inspired by himself, Lewis, and the other courageous marchers. A court order prevented the second Selma march from being completed. That night, three of those who had responded to the March 7 violence by traveling to Selma to join the second march were themselves severely beaten. One of them, Rev. James Reeb of Boston, died two days later.
The third Selma march - on March 21 - was one of the most important successes of the civil rights movement. The march also produced one of the iconic images of the civil rights era - as Dr. King and other marchers were pictured with beautiful flower lei around their necks. The lei were gifts from Rev. Akaka. Flower lei in Hawaiian culture often have important symbolic and spiritual value. In this case, Rev. Akaka wanted to convey feelings of solidarity, peace, and love - which is exactly what the marchers felt.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed by LBJ on August 6, after having been introduced on March 18.
I was reminded of much of this history and its significance by a wonderful article earlier this summer in The Molokai News. Rev. Akaka's daughter Pualani is a teacher on the Island of Moloka`i. Rev. Akaka - brother of U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka - died in 1997. The story is about Pualani's trip to the Mainland to more fully understand her dad, his friend Dr. King, and the civil rights movement - and about how she conveys what she's learned to her students:
Meaning of Civil Rights Movement comes full circle for fifth grade teacher
“The relationships, built with visits to Hawaii, the impact and connection (to Dr. King) was made whole with the power of aloha,” said Akaka. “And that power which is greater than all of us, that power people call God, is aloha. And that aloha was connecting with Dr. King and his needing to make things right, to bring things to help people not being treated fairly.
“It’s a message for every person,” Akaka continued, “when you’re feeling discouraged, that it can‘t happen, whether you are on Molokai, Oahu or in any situation, that we remember that aloha never dies. It is always the power that can give life to anyone who comes to it and holds it and that’s what this point is, that by the leis being sent to them that they would know that aloha is never going to die.”
Please take the time to read the whole piece. It's not long, and it includes a few great photographs, including one from the third Selma march and a recent picture of Pualani and Rev. Jesse Jackson. And we could all use some encouragement - some aloha - these days.