Why did Martin Luther King Jr. wear a Hawaiian lei during the Selma to Montgomery marches?

Francis Lanzano Contributor
Why did Martin Luther King Jr. wear a Hawaiian lei during the Selma to Montgomery marches?

Answer: King saw Hawaii as a “noble example” of racial harmony

The Selma to Montgomery marches were a series of protests held in 1965 along the 50 plus mile highway from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery. Organized by nonviolent activists, the aim of the marches was to demonstrate the desire of African-American citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote and were part of a broader voting rights movement underway in Selma and throughout the American South during the mid 1960s. The marches and protest cast a spotlight on racial injustice across the country and contributed to passage of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark federal achievement of the Civil Rights Movement.

During the third and final march that began on March 21, 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights protesters were seen leading the crowd of thousands wearing a Hawaiian lei, the infamous wreath of flowers that is normally presented upon arriving or leaving the islands as a symbol of affection, and more generally as a gesture of love. The garlands were initially organized to be sent to King as a symbolic action of support and solidarity by Reverend Abraham Akaka, an American clergyman and Kahu (shepherd) of Kawaiahaʻo Church in Honolulu, Hawaii.

MLK Selma march Hawaii leis

The third Selma Civil Rights March frontline. From far left: John Lewis, an unidentified nun; Ralph Abernathy; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Ralph Bunche; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; Frederick Douglas Reese. Second row: Between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Bunche is Rabbi Maurice Davis. Heschel later wrote, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” Joseph Ellwanger is standing in the second row behind the nun.

According to Hawaii Magazine, “King visited Hawaii a number of times during his life. Just a year before the Selma marches, he spoke at a Honolulu conference for the Hawaii State Human Rights Commission—the first committee of its kind in the United States—of which Rev. Akaka was a board member. King found the Islands’ multiethnic population and everyday society to be an inspirational source of “racial harmony” as the struggle of African Americans made headlines across the continental U.S.”