Kualapu’u Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Pualani Akaka took a trip to the mainland for her summer break that not only held special personal meaning but will help her students expand their understanding of aloha and the Civil Rights Movement.
The story really begins in 1959, the year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Hawaii to meet with community leaders. One of those leaders was the Rev. Abraham Akaka, Pualani’s father.
Jump forward to 1965 when Rev. Akaka and his church congregation sent plumeria leis to Dr. King and his supporters just before the historic march on Selma, Alabama. Old black-and-white photos of this peaceful demonstration show Dr. King and the other front line marchers wearing authentic Hawaiian leis. One of these photos can be found in the Civil Rights classroom book used in Pua Akaka’s classroom.
In June, Akaka traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to visit the National Civil Rights Museum and also retrace Dr. King’s final steps. She went to the Lorraine Motel, the site where Dr. King was assassinated, to make a personal connection using a lei.
“I took a plumeria lei but I was not sure they would let me do it,” Akaka explained. “I wanted to leave it (the lei) some place where it would allow me to acknowledge the relationship between and among the people who believed in the movement.” She placed the flower lei in the exact spot on the balcony where Dr. King fell.
From Memphis, Akaka traveled to Chicago and met with the president of the Chicago Theological Seminary. After telling her story and showing her a photo of the lei left in Memphis, Akaka received the suggestion that she call Rev. Jesse Jackson and share her story with him. As the history books and photos show us, Rev. Jackson was actually on the balcony with Dr. King when he was killed.
From this suggestion, Akaka met with Rev. Jackson, his wife and daughter at his Rainbow Push headquarters on a Sunday afternoon, June 19. Although she didn’t get much time to talk to Rev. Jackson, she did get a photo taken of herself — holding up the photo from 1965 of Dr. King wearing a lei in Selma — with the Jackson family.
Pualani Akaka had come full circle.
“The relationships, built with visits to Hawaii, the impact and connection (to Dr. King) was made whole with the power of aloha,” said Akaka. “And that power which is greater than all of us, that power people call God, is aloha. And that aloha was connecting with Dr. King and his needing to make things right, to bring things to help people not being treated fairly.
“It’s a message for every person,” Akaka continued, “when you’re feeling discouraged, that it can‘t happen, whether you are on Molokai, Oahu or in any situation, that we remember that aloha never dies. It is always the power that can give life to anyone who comes to it and holds it and that’s what this point is, that by the leis being sent to them that they would know that aloha is never going to die.”
Through this first time visit to Memphis, Akaka said, it revived her “depth of passion” for the Civil Rights Movement.
But that was not Akaka’s only purpose for traveling to the mainland. She also visited Springfield, Illinois, to reconnect to the roots of Abraham Lincoln. This too, she said, will also bring a greater depth to her teaching.
Akaka wanted to leave with one final thought:
“I want to encourage teachers to take the time in January to celebrate Dr. King. Maybe even in December before they go to break. Take time to let students know this (history). The holiday, use that time to reflect and be helpful to making this a community. That really shows aloha to one another, that’s what I would want.”