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Michele Warmund
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9632

Wear a Lei to Commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.

Michele Warmund
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9632

January 2,2024

minute read

January 15 Americans can celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday by wearing a lei, which is a Hawaiian symbol of honor, greeting, love, and friendship. In 1959, Dr. King was presented leis upon his arrival at the Honolulu airport. During the trip, he praised the state for its commitment to diversity in his address to the Hawaii House of Representatives. Dr. King also received and wore several leis when he landed in New Delhi, India for his five-week trip to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi in 1959 (Figure 1).

side byb side image. On left, man with leis standing between 2 women. On right, man and woman with leis with woman in between and people behind

Figure 1 Martin Luther King Jr. wearing leis upon his arrival in Honolulu, Hawaii (left) and in Delhi, India (right) in 1959.

On March 21, 1965, Dr. King and other civil rights leaders each wore a white lei during the third march from Selma, Alabama (Figure 2). These leis were gifts from Reverand Abraham Kahikina Akaka, Hawaii's first commissioner for civil rights. On this march, Dr. King led nonviolent demonstrators on a five-day, 54-mile walk to Montgomery in protest of discriminatory voting practices. At the state capitol building, Dr. King gave his famous speech, "How Long, Not Long."

group of people marching with leis

Figure 2 Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights advocates wearing leis on their march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama on March 21, 1965.

The custom of presenting and wearing a lei was introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by Polynesian voyagers sailing from Tahiti. In ancient times, an open-ended lei, made from maile leaves (Alyxia stellata) was used as a "treaty" between chiefs. In a temple, opposing chiefs would intertwine the maile vine to symbolize their commitment to peace.

Many years later, leis were used to welcome visitors to the Hawaiian Islands and local islanders returning home. Also, visitors departing on luxury ships would toss their leis into the ocean in hopes that they would return to the islands again, just like their lei. Today leis are presented as gifts to be worn in celebration of special occasions, including birthdays, graduations, weddings, and anniversaries (Figure 3). In India, garlands of flowers are called mala. These garlands are presented to visiting dignitaries, exchanged in wedding ceremonies, and used in religious rituals (Figure 4).

three separate images of individuals with leis

Figure 3 Leis are worn to welcome visitors and to celebrate special occasions.

garlands of colorful flowers

Figure 4 Colorful garlands of flowers in India.

When presenting a lei, put your cheek next to the recipient and exhale with a soft breath (locally known as "the ha"). This breath symbolizes giving another everything in your heart. After the flowers fade, do not pitch them in the trash. In Hawaiian tradition, it is customary to remove the flowers, leaves, and nuts from the lei and return them to the earth for composting.

Although artificial leis can be purchased, those made from plant material are prized due to their beauty and fragrance. The kui pololei, or straight pattern lei is often made by piercing the center of 40 to 50 flowers, such as dendrobium orchid, on a single strand. However, examples of several other designs are listed below.

  • Kui poepoe is a double lei, with materials strung crosswise through the stem and are arranged like spokes on a wheel.
  • Hili is a braided or plated design where three strands of one type of plant material, such as ferns or vines are braided together.
  • Hipu'u or kipu'u leis are knotted, often with leaves of the kukui tree.
  • Haku is a braided type of lei with other materials added to each braid.
  • Humu is a stitched lei with an overlapping pattern, resembling scales.
  • Wili is a lei of twisted materials held in place with a coil wrap often made of raffia.
  • Hilo is a rope consisting of two twisted strands, used alone or in multiples, which are often ti leaves. (Figure 5)
four images of leis

Figure 5 Leis may be composed of many different types of materials, such as flowers, leaves, berries, nut sand shells and come in many different designs.

Leis are often made with various types of plant materials, including dendrobium (Dendrobium sp.) and other orchids, plumeria (Plumeria rubra), tuberose (Polianthes tuberosa), rose (Rosa damascena), and cigar plant (Cuphea ignea) flowers, and kukui nuts (Aleurites moluccana). Leis composed of strands of red he'e berry (Schefflera actinophylla) intertwined with braided ti leaves (Cordyline fruiticosa) are often given as gifts during the winter holidays. Each of the eight primary Hawaiian Islands has its official lei, which are listed below.

Island Common Name of Material Scientific Name Characteristics
Oahu ilima Sida fallax yellow flower
Maui lokelani Rosa damascena pink, fragrant flower
Kauai mokihana Melicope anisata large green berry, spicy fragrance
Hawaii ohia lehua Metrosideros polymorpha red flowers
Molokai kukui Aleurites moluccana white flowers and brown nuts
Lanai kaunaoa Cuscuta sandwichiana leafless stems of vines
Kaho'olawe hinahina Heliotropium anomalum clustered white flowers, green stems
Nihau pupu Gastropoda (class of mollusks) multicolored shells

With so many types of leis to choose from, don your favorite type in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. A lei made from carnations or roses can be made to commemorate the January 15th holiday.

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REVISED: January 2, 2024