As a child in the 1940s, Marsha Rose Joyner and her mother stopped in Honolulu on their way to Saipan, where her father was stationed after the war. But they were turned away from the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, where other military dependents were staying, because of the color of their skin, according to her husband.
As a teen, Joyner was one of five Black high school students to integrate Baltimore’s all-white Western High School in 1954 following the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that found segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
As an adult, and already a pioneer in the civil rights movement, Joyner returned to Honolulu, where she worked tirelessly for more than 40 years for civil and human rights, Native Hawaiian rights, world peace and other progressive causes.
Joyner died of breast cancer April 10 at her daughter’s home in Waianae, where she received hospice care. She was 82.
“Marsha Joyner was a firecracker who knew when she was in a barrel of explosives and just how and when to set it off for human dignity, Native Hawaiian rights, environmental sanity, denuclearization — the list goes on,” said Poka Laenui, a Hawaiian sovereignty activist and attorney in an email.
Joyner was born May 22, 1938, in Brazil, Ind. Her mother was noted journalist Elizabeth Oliver, granddaughter of John H. Murphy Sr., founder of the Afro-American, one of the nation’s largest chains of Black-owned newspapers.
Joyner once told a writer she was “born into a family of causes” and that her main purpose was to bring about change and to create a world in which all people were treated justly and equally, according to an obituary written by Joseph Green-Bishop and John “Jake” Oliver Jr., her cousin and publisher of the Afro-American Newspapers.
She was also a direct descendant of John Oliver, a former enslaved person who became an attorney and served on the grand jury that indicted Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, for treason, the obituary said.
Joyner attended Howard University, and in the 1960s was active in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Baltimore, participating in protest sit-ins and picket lines, even getting arrested.
She later married Kenneth Joyner, a Navy submariner who retired in January 1974 as a senior chief petty officer, and the couple remained in Hawaii throughout their 32-year marriage.
“Marsha encouraged me to set up a beauty shop,” Kenneth Joyner said — he operated it in Waikiki for 27 years.
Marsha Joyner authored a petition for Martin Luther King Jr. Day to become an official state holiday in Hawaii and joined with others to help make that happen in 1989, six years after it was proclaimed a federal holiday. She served 21 years with the Hawaii Martin Luther King Jr. Coalition as president and later as its historian.
Upon Joyner’s death, the Democratic Party of Hawaii honored her legacy and acknowledged her impact in Hawaii and nationally for her support of party candidates and ideals, and her lifelong advocacy for civil rights.
In recent years, Joyner also was one of the leaders of a national movement that is petitioning the Department of Navy to upgrade the Navy Cross awarded to Pearl Harbor hero Doris “Dorie” Miller, an African American mess attendant on the USS West Virginia, to a Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award.
Joanne Tachibana, president of the United Nations Association’s Honolulu Chapter, said she and Joyner were “peace partners” for the past 25 years. She said Joyner worked closely with Valdo and Frances Viglielmo in establishing Honolulu’s Nagasaki Peace Bell and the annual remembrance of the victims of the U.S. bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945.
“We must never forget the horrors of war, and the need for enduring peace,” Joyner wrote in an Aug. 12, 2019, editorial in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
Tachibana and Joyner came up with the Sunflower Project Hawaii opposing nuclear weapons, using sunflowers as symbols of peace after learning they were used to detoxify contaminated soil at the site of nuclear accidents in Chernobyl in the Ukraine and in Fukushima, Japan.
Tachibana said she visited Joyner shortly before her death.
“We could reminisce and share our peace stories and the deep friendship we had,” Tachibana said. “Her heart was colorblind. We worked with a goal of making the world a better place. She said, ‘We’re soul sisters for peace.’”
Kenneth Joyner, who accompanied his wife twice to Nagasaki, said she received a warm welcome from bombing survivors.
Marsha Joyner also served as program director for the Pacific Justice and Reconciliation Center. “She was very creative and innovative and tried to educate others about the role of peace and nonviolence … ,” said Haaheo Guanson, center vice president.
Kenneth Akinaka, a health and human rights advocate who worked with Joyner on many projects, said, “Marsha was probably the most active and sincere human rights peace advocate that I’ve met, but especially in Hawaii.”
When he visited her a week before she died, Joyner spoke about a project she was working on to honor Hung Wai Ching, one of the founders of the Varsity Victory Volunteers and an advocate for the creation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Joyner also served as program director of the Hawaii Peace Center, and for the past 27 years was executive producer of the Hawaiian National Communications Corp. She hosted hundreds of “ThinkTech Hawaii” talk shows from 2016 up through this February.
Native Hawaiian community organizer and retired anthropology professor Lynette Cruz said Joyner encouraged activists not to rely on government to enact change.
“She could see beyond the common understanding that government structures are there to help,” Cruz said. “She encouraged us to move on things anyway. ‘You can’t wait for them to come and make things right. Gather in groups. Be your community and do it yourself, but you have to do it in community.’”
Laenui met Joyner in the mid-1980s when the U.S. announced the transshipment of nerve gas to Johnston Atoll, also known as Kalama Atoll, for incineration. Laenui said he joined with Carl Imiola Young and Joyner to form a makeshift organization to oppose the action.
“Marsha was the spark for the local media, calling every radio show every morning and putting in a word about what a bad idea it was shipping America’s nerve gas across the Pacific for incineration at Kalama Atoll, which faced the strong possibility of poisoning our ocean waters,” he said.
“We organized protests, rallies and picketed the East-West Center when President George (H.W.) Bush came to Hawaii (in 1990), and were able to get him to say that this would be the last transshipment of gas to Kalama. He also announced the U.S. military would stop the bombing of Kahoolawe and return the island to the State of Hawaii.”
In addition to her husband, Joyner is survived by her daughter, Marilyn Carter; sons Elmer, Christopher and Gregory German; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held May 18 at the Ballard Family Moanalua Mortuary and via Zoom, with details to be announced at ballardfamilymoanaluamortuary.com. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be to the Susan G. Komen Foundation of Hawaii in Joyner’s name. The family may be contacted via email at email@example.com.