|The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights leaders wear lei during their 1965 march|
It's altogether fitting that the Hawaii Legislature opens its annual session this week as the state and the rest of the nation commemorate what would have been King's 83rd birthday. King, in his 1959 address to a special session of the Hawaii Legislature, praised Hawaii for its ethnic diversity.
"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," King said in his address.
Five years after those words, King carried a bit of Hawaii to Alabama. That five-day, 54-mile march from Selma, where an Alabama state trooper had shot and killed church deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson, to the state capital, helped bring King to the forefront of the nation's imagination, spurring the cause of nonviolent protest that would be picked up and championed by an entire generation, fomenting the hope of equality for all mankind.
The lei were no artifice. King had strong Hawaii ties, from his 1959 address to the Hawaii Legislature to his relationship with the Rev. Abraham Kahikina Akaka, older brother of Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii. Abraham Akaka, kahu (shepherd) of Kawaiahao Church in Honolulu, developed a close friendship with King when King came to Honolulu in 1964 to participate in a Civil Rights Week symposium at the University of Hawaii, according to Akaka's obituary in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Abraham Akaka later sent the lei to King as a gift, according to a 1991 article in Jet Magazine by Simeon Booker.
Here's the text of King's speech, as recorded in the Journal of the Hawaii House of Representatives:
The following remarks were made by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Thursday, September 17, 1959 at the Hawaii House of Representatives 1959 First Special Session:
“Mr. Speaker, distinguished members of the House of Representatives of this great new state in our Union, ladies and gentlemen:
It is certainly a delightful privilege and pleasure for me to have this great opportunity and, I shall say, it is a great honor to come before you today and to have the privilege of saying just a few words to you about some of the pressing problems confronting our nation and our world.
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.
People ask me from time to time as I travel across the country and over the world whether there has been any real progress in the area of race relations, and I always answer it by saying that there are three basic attitudes that one can take toward the question of progress in the area of race relations. One can take the attitude of extreme optimism. The extreme optimist would contend that we have come a long, long way in the area of race relations, and he would point proudly to the strides that have been made in the area of civil rights in the last few decades. And, from this, he would conclude that the problem is just about solved now and that we can sit down comfortably by the wayside and wait on the coming of the inevitable.
And then segregation is still with us. Although we have seen the walls gradually crumble, it is still with us. I imply that figuratively speaking, that Old Man Segregation is on his death bed, but you know history has proven that social systems have a great last-minute breathing power, and the guardians of the status quo are always on hand with their oxygen tents to keep the old order alive, and this is exactly what we see today. So segregation is still with us. We are confronted in the South in its glaring and conspicuous forms, and we are confronted in almost every other section of the nation in its hidden and subtle forms. But if democracy is to live, segregation must die. Segregation is a cancer in the body politic which must be removed before our democratic health can be realized. In a real sense, the shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of an anemic democracy. If we are to survive, if we are to stand as a force in the world, if we are to maintain our prestige, we must solve this problem because people are looking over to America.
Just two years ago I traveled all over Africa and talked with leaders from that great continent. One of the things they said to me was this: No amount of extensive handouts and beautiful words would be substitutes for treating our brothers in the United States as first-class citizens and human beings. This came to me from mouth of Prime Minister Nkrumah of Ghana.
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. As we move on in this realm, let us move on with the faith that this problem can be solved, and that it will be solved, believing firmly that all reality hinges on moral foundations, and we are struggling for what is right, and we are destined to win.
We have come a long, long way. We have a long, long way to go. I close, if you will permit me, by quoting the words of an old Negro slave preacher. He didn’t quite have his grammar right, but he uttered some words in the form of a prayer with great symbolic profundity and these are the works he said: ‘Lord, we ain’t what we want to be; we ain’t what we ought to be; we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God, we ain’t what we was.’ Thank you.”
At the conclusion of his address, there was much applause.