Leis And Civil Rights

03.06.15 10:15 AM ET

The Untold Story of Why MLK Wore a Hawaiian Lei at Selma

The bright flowers look out of place amid the seriousness of the march and the cause, but there was a reason for them.

Bright Hawaiian lei will be on full display this weekend when President Barack Obama, civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis and others march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to mark the anniversary of the civil rights protests.

There's an untold backstory of aloha—a Hawaiian word meaning compassion, peace and love—that runs through the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in Alabama, 50 years ago.

In photos of the 54-mile third march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965, Martin Luther King, John Lewis and other demonstrators can be seen wearing the iconic Hawaiian flower garlands.

It's a jarring, out-of-place image of fragile, flowery optimism amidst a backdrop of intimidation, violence and federalized troops.

The journey of those flowers from Hawaii to Alabama started a year earlier, when King delivered a lecture at the University of Hawaii. It was there that he met Rev. Abraham Akaka, the brother of future U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka.

In the lead-up to the third march, as President Lyndon Johnson was making preparations to protect the demonstrators with military policemen and the Alabama National Guard, Rev. Akaka sent gifts of bright white lei from the Pacific Ocean to the Deep South to be draped on the marchers.

For the reverend, it was a symbolic gesture that affirmed Asian-American support for the civil rights movement.

Now, 50 years later, Lewis and Hawaii native Obama will join Asian-American lawmakers Sen. Mazie Hirono and Rep. Mark Takai, among nearly 100 lawmakers, to pay homage to the civil rights movement and “Bloody Sunday.”

Dozens of marchers will be wearing white double carnation lei, the same kind that Rev. Akaka delivered to King and Lewis for that fateful march a half century before.

"I will honor the men and women who risked their lives in the name of equality on Bloody Sunday by presenting civil rights leaders with flower leis, just as Rev. Abraham Kahikina Akaka did during the third Selma march in 1965," Hirono said Thursday.

The marches led by King and Lewis marked a turning point for civil rights that continues to have meaningful effects for minorities today, including Asian Americans.

“As an ethnic minority, I am thankful for those that paved the way for the freedoms and liberties that all of us as Americans enjoy,” Takai said. “They suffered insults and physical harm, yet their spirit remained unbroken.”