"On 25 March 1965, Martin Luther King led thousands of nonviolent demonstrators to the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, after a 5-day, 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama, where local African Americans, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had been campaigning for voting rights." (The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University).
In a striking portrait by photographer Steve Schapiro, King and American political scientist and diplomat Ralph Bunche stand among fellow civil rights leaders wearing vivid flower leis over their sober suits and coats. The garlands were sent from the Pacific to the Deep South by Reverend Abraham Akaka, whom King had met at the University of Hawaii when he visited to give a lecture.
To Rev. Akaka, the leis symbolized Asian American support for the protestors in their quest to obtain equal voting rights. In Hawaii, across Polynesia and the Philippines, leis are given as gifts, representing peace, love, honor and friendship.
The bright flowers (which appear to be fragrant plumeria blooms) make a conspicuous contrast to the seriousness of the day. President Lyndon B. Johnson had assembled federalized troops to protect the marchers, who had endured violent confrontations with state troopers and local people in prior voting rights demonstrations early in 1965.
Delicate and graceful, the flower garlands make a powerful statement of hope and peace in the face of oppression. Upon arriving at the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, King addressed the crowd, which had swelled to more than 25,000. “There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes” (King, Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March, 121).
"On 6 August, 1965, in the presence of King and other civil rights leaders, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Recalling “the outrage of Selma,” Johnson called the right to vote “the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men” (Johnson, “Remarks”). In his annual address to SCLC a few days later, King noted that “Montgomery led to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and 1960; Birmingham inspired the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and Selma produced the voting rights legislation of 1965” (King, 11 August 1965)." (The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University).
Today, as we remember Martin Luther King's birthday and celebrate his world-changing work, may we be inspired to be as bold as love, and to hold steadfast to hope in our pursuit of justice and equity.
Photo credit: Steve Schapiro/Corbis via Getty Images