From Hawaii to Selma: The Hawaiian Leis Worn by Marchers
As I discussed in my first blog, I learned a lot about plantation life for Japanese immigrants in Hawaii in the early 20th century and the similarities of their songs to slavery songs of the South. After recognizing the overlap between these two experiences, I wanted to build more connections. My grandma told me about how Martin Luther King Jr. had made a speech in Hawaii right before it became a state in 1959. As I was looking more into this I was surprised to find photographs of King and other marchers wearing Hawaiian leis from the Selma march and decided to choose this specific image as my cultural artifact (Berger).The caption for this photograph, given by the photographer James Barker, is “Rev. Martin Luther King concludes a speech and is interviewed by newsmen on the steps of Brown Chapel….All wearing leis brought by the Hawaiian contingent” (Berger). This photograph was taken in 1965 before the third march from Selma to Montgomery. I was shocked to find such a direct link between the Civil Rights Movement and Hawaii, and while I was familiar with the overlap of experiences of Hawaiian plantation life and African American slavery, I did not expect to find a photo like this. I learned that King had strong ties to Hawaii and he saw Hawaii as an “inspiration and a noble example…of racial harmony and racial justice [that] we are struggling to accomplish in other sections of the country” (King Jr, “Address”). Hawaii used to be a very segregated society as it was based on a plantation economy. My great grandparents experienced it as did other Asian immigrants. Through labor union organizing with different racial groups coming together, Hawaii was able to move towards a more integrated society (Viotti). The group that brought the leis and represented Hawaii in the march are pictured below from left to right: Glenn Izutsu who was the head of the student union at the University of Hawaii, Dr. Robert Browne, Nona Ferdon who was a research fellow at UH, Charles Campbell who was a high school teacher, and Dr. Linus Pauling, Jr. (Ardery). The banner behind them represents what King had addressed in his speech: that Hawaii represented the triumph of racial integration the rest of the U.S. was struggling with.
I specifically chose this photograph of the marchers wearing leis because I felt that this image was very powerful in portraying the connection between Hawaii and the marchers as well as the symbolism of the leis. I remember learning about the Civil Rights Movement in the South in school but had never seen this picture before. Nona Ferdon acknowledged how people in Hawaii understood and sympathized with African Americans and the racial injustice they faced because many of them, especially the Asian population, remember this kind of injustice (Viotti). My great grandparents had struggled with racial discrimination and the housing and employment segregation that accompanied plantation life. When I saw this photograph I started to think about the struggles my own family had to overcome in Hawaii and began to understand this sympathy they had for African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. I also found it fitting for them to wear these leis during the Selma marches. The Selma marches represented “peaceful mobilization for justice” and the leis they wore symbolized their peaceful intentions. When I look at this photo I feel like the leis represent my own family and the rest of Hawaii supporting King and the other marchers all the way from Hawaii.
While photographers such as Spider Martin and Charles Moore are known for their photographs of the Selma marches, James Barker is the photographer of this image. While Martin and Moore capture dramatic moments from the marches, Barker’s photographs are much more intimate and are from the viewpoint of a participant observer instead of a journalist like Martin and Moore (Berger). Because he did not need to sell his photographs, it was not necessary for him to capture dramatic moments that would have been desirable to publishers. He was a technical photographer at Washington State University and was selected by the University to travel to Selma and document it. The equipment he brought with him would help him to photograph people up-close as he intended to participate in the march. He explained that he had tried, like with all his work, “to carve out personalities of people and interactions – anything possible to show the emotions of who people are and their involvement with each other” (Geiling). The rest of his photographs that were on display at the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York earlier this year in the exhibit “Selma March 1965” depict what was going on both behind the scenes, such as pictures from inside a car that was transporting demonstrators, and within the march (Selma March 1965). This specific photograph is interesting because, while King is being interviewed, we can see the people that are interviewing him and this point of view creates this feeling as if we are actually there at the march.
This image is from before the march at Brown Chapel and represents the way Barker tried to capture the march: it is intimate, participatory, and not taken from a journalist’s perspective. Many of Martin and Moore’s photographs in the exhibit are at a distance and or at a low angle, especially those of King, and feel less intimate yet still very emotional. Barker’s role as a participant observer and the trust he gained from the marchers “allowed him to represent his subjects as complex being rather than as nameless icons of the struggle…[his work portrays] the intensity, fear, weariness, tedium and determination that registered on the faces and in the body language of Selma’s brave foot soldiers” (Berger). This photograph of marchers milling around before the march is not one that is seen a lot in the media; rather it is the violent images of “Bloody Sunday” or King walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma as they were meant to stir emotions across the country and to inspire people to stand up and speak and act against this injustice. This photograph with this visible mark of Hawaii is also rarely seen yet I believe it truly captures the peaceful yet visible actions of the Selma marches.
This photograph was taken on March 21, 1965 in front of the Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama before the third march to Montgomery. The march from Selma to Montgomery was meant to raise awareness about the difficulty African Americans faced in the South when it came to registering to vote. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is often referred to as the Second Reconstruction as it resulted in the legal end of racial segregation and increased the rights of African Americans concerning voter registration (Mintz). However, just like with the first Reconstruction, there was a lot of opposition and thus it would take decades, and in some cases it has still not happened, for local governments to actually put these laws and rulings into practice. Even once de jure segregation ended in the South (which is rooted in law), de facto segregation became the norm (which is rooted in social customs) (Pittman, The Great Migration). Two key Supreme Court decisions that led up to this Second Reconstruction was Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 upheld racially segregated public facilities as long as they were “separate but equal.” While Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 legally ended segregation in public schools, it was still carried on in practice because this ruling did not assert that it had to be implemented quickly. A decade after this decision, less than 1% of children in former Confederate states were in non-segregated schools (Pittman, The Second Reconstruction). Many governors and individuals refused to abide by these legal rulings in ending segregation and discrimination. Thus, this inequality for African Americans despite legal attempts to create fair treatment led to the rise of different activist groups and emergence of leaders determined to challenge these and other injustices.
While the Selma march specifically concerned black voter registration, it also represented the tensions and inequality that African Americans faced in general. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, segregation was outlawed in public places and as well as unequal application of voting requirements (“Selma to Montgomery March”). However, governments in the South continued to deny the majority of African American eligible voters to register. In Alabama, efforts by the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC who King was a part of) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register African American voters was met with opposition and resistance. In Selma, because of the state and local opposition to desegregation, black voter registration was extremely low and “only 2 percent of Selma’s eligible black voters (300 out of 15,000) had managed to register by early 1965 (“Selma to Montgomery March”). Thus, King and SCLC decided to make Selma the focus of their voting registration campaign. In addition, the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young African American demonstrator, prompted King and the SCLC to plan a protest march from Selma to Montgomery. The SCLC can be categorized as a Centrist group as they desired to “achieve full citizenship rights, equality, and integration into all aspects of American life” through social, nonviolent protest (Pittman, The Second Reconstruction). They knew that, by using non-violence, they themselves would be subjected to violence and might even go to jail. However, King and the SCLC were aware of this and purposely chose Selma. They anticipated the notorious brutality of the local law enforcement and planned to use it to their advantage to sway national opinion, garner support, and pressure President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress to pass a voting rights legislation to help protect African Americans (“Selma to Montgomery March (1965)”). This nonviolent means of protest is demonstrated in this photograph of King and the other marchers wearing the leis.
This photograph is also significant as the leis symbolize the support that African Americans had from people in Hawaii even though they were so far away from the South. It represents the growing support from among people of different backgrounds. King’s call for support during his speech in Hawaii was answered with these leis. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King emphasizes that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (King Jr, “Letter”). This emphasis on interconnectedness is seen by the diverse group around King in this photograph and the fact that all of them, and not just King, are wearing leis. Other religious leaders participated in the marches such as the Rabbi Joshua Heschel who can be seen on the far right of the photograph. There is also a mix of white and black marchers and, while not present in the picture, Asian Americans as well including Glenn Izutsu. This march also brought activists from different sides of the spectrum. John Lewis, on the far left of the photograph, was the Chairman of the SNCC which was a leftist group. Before the march there had been tensions between the SNCC and the SCLC. The SNCC supported nonviolence but their focus was not on a top-down system; rather, they were grassroots oriented and were focused on establishing local leadership within communities (Pittman, The Second Reconstruction). Members of the SNCC did not like the SCLC’s massive and spectacular mobilizations which were aimed to grab the attention of the media. However, it was John Lewis who urged his group to participate (“1965: Selma & the March to Montgomery”). Yet they did not officially join the Selma campaign until after “Bloody Sunday” and it was only John Lewis who was allowed to participate in that march (Branch 73). We talked about the different activist groups in class and this photograph is an example of how the SCLC and SNCC had some overlap and were able to come together for a similar cause. Thus, this march not only brought together people of different races and religions, it also was able to bridge the gap between different political groups at the time.
The significance of this photograph has changed since it was taken concerning both voting rights and Hawaii’s racial justice that King had applauded. In Hawaii, the racial integration that the banner in the photo references mostly concerns Asian populations that had lived and worked on the plantations. However, the struggles of Native Hawaiians has become more visible as they are being pushed to the margins of society and experience “high incarceration levels, very little land ownership, and poor education” (Hansen). I remember how my dad, when we were in Honolulu where he grew up, would point out where a lot of Native Hawaiians lived; these areas were often poor and run down. Nona Ferdon, one of the five people who went to Selma, explains how “we went [to Selma] because we truly believed in the words on the banner we carried: ‘Hawaii Knows Integration Works,’ and it seemed so at that time. Sadly I understand that these words aren’t so apt today” (Viotti). Ferdon also explains that she has become disheartened to see the decrease in voter participation today when she and others had fought so hard for voter equality.
This third march to Montgomery helped to push the Voting Rights Act into law in August of 1965. This act “banned the use of literacy tests, provided for federal oversight of voter registration in areas where less than 50% of the nonwhite population had not registered to vote, and authorized the U.S. attorney general to investigate the use of poll taxes” (“Voting Rights Act”). Yet just as with Brown v. Board, many local and state governments, especially in the South, were either slow to enforce it or did not enforce it at all. However, voting turnout did increase, such as in Mississippi where black voter turnout increased from 6% in 1964 to 59% in 1969 (“Voting Rights Act”). Yet in recent years voter participation has decreased and the Voting Rights Act has been weakened. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court found that the preclearance formula in the Voting Rights Act (which required “states with a history of racial discrimination to get permission from the federal government to enact any changes to their voting laws”) was unconstitutional; however, they kept intact the part of the law that describes how preclearance works (Brandeisky). What they deemed unconstitutional was the part that explained which states were subject to preclearance. Since then at least seven preclearance states have new restrictions on voting which include limiting early voting and registration and requiring voters to show photo ID. These statutes disproportionately affect poor and minority voters (Brandeisky). In Alabama, the state enforced a requirement that potential voters must show proof of citizenship. For young people who do not remember the Selma marches and take their voting rights for granted, this photograph is a reminder of the struggles that African Americans faced and the violence they endured that resulted in support coming in from different parts of the country and from people with different religions and different backgrounds.
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King Jr, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” UC Davis L. Rev. 26 (1992): 835.
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Selma March 1965. 15 Mar. 2015. Gallery Exhibit. Steven Kasher Gallery, New York City.
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