Marcher present years ago: Reflect on progress, what needs to be done
Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, there is more work to be done, according to Hawaii officials, advocacy group leaders and a Maui attorney who was among 200,000 fervent demonstrators when history was being made at the Lincoln Memorial.
Born and raised in Lahaina, William “Bill” Kinaka was a 23-year-old graduate student at American University 50 years ago when he hopped on a city bus headed for Washington, D.C., to march in what has been called one of the nation’s biggest civil rights rallies in history.
“I was initially very scared. Nobody knew what to expect,” Kinaka said Wednesday of the moments leading up to the march. He remembers getting up early that August morning to catch the public bus from his residence in Northwest Washington toward the city center around 6:30 a.m.
“Once you got on the bus, you almost felt like a freedom rider . . . The bus was really full. Most of (the riders) were going to the march,” Kinaka said. “You could feel the love and camaraderie of everyone. It wasn’t like in the South where people told you to go sit in the back.”
He added that nearly 90 percent of the riders on his crowded bus that morning were Caucasian.
Kinaka was no stranger to political activism or racial discrimination. Two years earlier when he was studying on exchange at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., he took part in protesting racial segregation at the Lowe’s Theater in downtown Nashville. He remembers being elbowed, spat on and called “n—- lover” by Whites as he and about 30 others were repeatedly rejected as they tried to purchase a movie ticket.
But Kinaka’s interest in civil rights was piqued long before that, when he was a child living with his parents at a plantation camp in Lahaina. He remembers the camps were segregated by ethnic groups, with his known as the kiawe camp, filled mostly with people of Japanese descent.
“I was living in the Japanese camp, and there you can sense discrimination between the white plantation managers, and the rest of us laborers. As a kid, I felt discriminated against, and you could see how unfair things were, so I made a pledge to at least try to correct some of those things,” Kinaka said.
On Wednesday, Gov. Neil Abercrombie invited the people of Hawaii to “ring a bell” at 3 p.m. in remembrance of King’s speech. A rally also was held at the Hawaii State Capitol Rotunda, attended by U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, state Rep. Chris Lee, former Hawaii Supreme Court Justice Steven Levinson and others.
“Half an ocean and a continent separate Hawaii from the National Mall, but we are no less impacted by Dr. King’s remarkable words that day,” Abercrombie said. “Here in the Aloha State, our diversity defines us and remains a source of great strength and beauty rivaling the natural wonder of these islands. However, we are reminded, even today, that prejudice and injustice persist. The fulfillment of Dr. King’s legacy of hope, unity and freedom depends on our choices and actions beyond this single day of remembrance, extending to every day of our lives.”
Kinaka said it’s important to reflect not only upon progress made over the past half-century, but also what still needs to be done.
“Race relations are much better than they were 50 years ago, but in terms of financials, the gap between the rich and the (poor), the haves and the have-nots, is only getting bigger,” said Kinaka, who returned to Maui shortly after finishing his education on the Mainland and has been a practicing attorney in Wailuku for more than 35 years.
Kinaka is the only known living Hawaii resident to have taken part in the march 50 years ago, according to Eileen Cain, a professor at Leeward Community College on Oahu. She has been researching Hawaii residents who participated in the civil rights movement as a personal project for the past three summers.
The late Rev. Abraham Akaka of the historic Kawaiahao Church in Honolulu and the late Hawaii U.S. Rep. Tom Gill also took part in the Washington march, Cain said.
“We have come a long way with the Civil Rights Bill,” Cain said. “Before, newspapers would list jobs by race. In the old (Honolulu) Advertiser and Star-Bulletin, they would say things like ‘Oriental preferred or part-Hawaiian wanted’ in their ads.”
The civil rights movement also has led to other initiatives like the Americans with Disabilities Act, she said. But, like Kinaka, Cain agreed that more work needed to be done to ensure equal rights for everyone in Hawaii.
“One of the biggest civil rights issues in Hawaii continues to be the status of Native Hawaiians,” Cain said. An Office of Hawaiian Affairs “report showed that Native Hawaiians are over-represented in unemployment rates and in jail, much like Blacks have been in the past.”
George and Terri Rainey, a couple who founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Coalition on Oahu 20 years ago and brought it to Maui last year, have been hosting African-American cultural events in Hawaii for more than two decades.
Last January, the couple partnered with Maui County, the African Americans on Maui Association and Nubian Pageant Systems to host an event at the Queen Ka’ahumanu Center celebrating Martin Luther King Day.
“Civil rights affect everybody of every color,” Terri Rainey said. “We wouldn’t have all these simple little pleasures we have – eating together, going to the same school, riding the buses – if it weren’t for Martin Luther King Jr.”
Her husband stressed the need to pass on King’s wisdom to future generations.
“Although we are integrated now, 50 years later, we are still not able to sit down and talk about race issues, which is still an issue both on the Mainland and in the islands,” George Rainey said. “The most important thing is to show by example, and teach our young folk to be able to talk about this.”
Some would argue that perhaps now more than ever, taking action and remembering the passion of those who stood up before us in defense of equal rights, is critical.
“To deny fellow man his social, political and economic rights because of the color of his skin is a moral sin. But an even greater sin is that of silence,” Kinaka wrote in a 1953 letter published in The Maui News a week after the march.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at email@example.com.