Hawaii to Selma

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Honolulu Star-Advertiser

INSIGHT


Hawaii to Selma


By Vicki Viotti

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jan 11, 2015

On March 25, 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. led a march from Selma, Ala., to the state Capitol building in Montgomery, an event of massive impact in the annals of the civil rights movement. The movie, “Selma,” which opened Friday, is a retelling of that event, a half-century later.

But before the history was written, before the event even happened, the mere idea of it reverberated with enough force to draw in marchers from across the country, even from across the Pacific Ocean. Hawaii’s participants in the march brought flower leis that they draped on King’s neck and on others in his group, leaving a visible stamp of aloha.

The concept that Selma represented — peaceful mobilization for justice — resonated with people in the young state of Hawaii, say those who have tracked the state’s history of political movements. Despite its remoteness from the struggles in the South, the islands had been dealing with their own civil rights awakening for decades.

For all the images of the “melting pot” — King himself acknowledged Hawaii as such when he spoke to the new state Legislature in 1959 — civil rights were part of the realignment of Hawaii government and society, before and after statehood.

And so, when word came to a news reporter at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin that a contingent from Hawaii wanted to join the march, Tomi Knaefler knew she wanted to chronicle the event. Already interested in civil rights, Knaefler had contacts within the movement in Hawaii who called her only days before they were supposed to leave. Her editor and publisher agreed to send her to Alabama and, after the requisite kamaaina chore of borrowing a warm coat, Knaefler was off.

Right from the start, being in the highly charged environment was an emotional experience, Knaefler said. She felt an almost instinctual understanding of what was happening.

“I knew what discrimination was. … You saw it all in their faces,” she said.

Knaefler was covering a group that included Glenn Izutsu, student government head at the University of Hawaii; Dr. Robert Browne, a psychiatrist who took a lot of the photos in Knaefler’s photo collection that are shown on these pages; Charles Campbell, a teacher before becoming a state lawmaker; and Dr. Linus Pauling Jr., a physician and the son of the famed Nobel Prize-winning scientist.

There was also Nona Ferdon, who then was a research fellow at UH. Now in London, where she still maintains a clinical psychology practice, Ferdon told the Star-Advertiser that “we went 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 those words aren’t so apt today.”

Ferdon recalled a quotation of Theodore Parker, the American abolitionist whom King famously paraphrased in a speech observing that “the arc of the moral universe Is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“He speaks of bending the arc of history, and I think we did,” she said. “Probably few people alive remember how it was before 1960. My childhood was spent in southern states — and I do remember.”

Ferdon said a friend she knew from studies at Berkeley arranged for someone to transport her from Montgomery to the start of the march in Selma. Along the way, tension over the event was rising. One morning, three tires in their car went flat, likelier the result of sabotage than a chance encounter with three nails on the road, she said.

“It began to dawn on us that we were in some danger. There were a lot white people lined up, saying, ‘Bye-bye, blackbird,’ to us.

“The march was three or four days,” she added. “President Johnson had sent out the National Guard, and there were helicopters over us all the time.”

For Knaefler, who met Ferdon as the march began, the experience was intense, despite her journalistic effort to remain a detached observer. She said it was the conditions on the ground that affected the Hawaii contingent in much the same way as any of the other marchers.

“Part of the intensity of the march, one, there was the fear,” she said. “There had been killings. You could just sense the negative feeling.

“The other part of the intensity was this coming together, this group with one purpose, you know? That was very, very strong. I suppose it’s the same thing when you go to war, this feeling of brotherhood. And yet there’s this fear, so the intensity is two ways, really.”

Hawaii residents did generally sympathize with the African-American sensibilities about racial injustice, she said.

“More so, the people who really thought about it,” she said. “The people at the university, the intelligentsia were much more aware of things.

“But you could pick somebody in Nanakuli, and they would have feelings about it,” Knaefler added. “They would understand. The Asians, you know, could understand it. But it was all sort of in their heart. … I really call it part of their DNA to understand it.”

In Hawaii, a lot had already changed by 1960, said William Hoshijo, executive director of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission. But before World War II there had been an historical experience that in some ways paralleled the discrimination of the South, he said. Some of the infamous racially charged criminal cases of early 20th-century Hawaii were part of that.

“We lived in a very segregated society here, with segregation in housing and employment and, to some extent, in public accommodations,” Hoshijo said. “We lived in a plantation economy. … there was actually a consciousness that people who weren’t white didn’t get a fair shake.”

Civil rights movements in Hawaii were tied to the labor union organizing, and that proved to be a fulcrum for the establishment of a more integrated society, Hoshijo said. Initial attempts at strikes were made within discrete ethnic groups, he said, but they failed.

“Through the labor movement there was a recognition here, though it was a hard realization, that racially or ethnically exclusive organizing in unions wouldn’t work,” he said. “It was only when as a strategy they realized we’re all brothers under the skin; that’s when they started to have success.”

The Selma experience left indelible marks on the marchers. Ferdon continued on a path of advocacy, for the Equal Rights Amendment and other causes. In the intervening decades and in conversations with family members still in Hawaii, she has noted an increase of ethnic tension here beyond what she recalled from her time in the 1950s and ‘60s.

And she’s disheartened to learn of the decrease in voter participation across the U.S.

“People died, people I know personally, for their right to vote, and now they can’t be bothered,” Ferdon said. “If we’re going to have a democracy, we’ve got to work on it.”

Still, Selma was an inspiration and Ferdon said she remains basically an optimist. And where Hawaii is concerned, Martin Luther King himself found this to be a hopeful place. He said as much when he addressed the first special session of the new state’s Legislature, speaking before the House of Representatives on Sept. 17, 1959.

“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,” he said, “to come to a place where we see the glowing daybreak of freedom and dignity and racial justice.”

As for the new film, “Selma,” Knaefler is anticipating a poignant experience, given that her emotional response is so strong, even now.

“I’m dying to see it,” she said. “Friends have been asking to go together, and I said, ‘I think the first time I see it, I just want to see it alone.’ You know? I just want to … I don’t know, I just want to see it alone.

“The emotional impact is still there. I mean, how long has it been?”