Many see Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a day off, but for my family, it’s a second birthday. The reason why my family always cherished this day is because in its essence, MLK Jr. Day captures my very existence, and is a reminder for my family that justice, no matter how long the road, will always prevail.
The interracial marriage of my grandparents, Curtis Robertson and Catherine Dove Gibbs, in Chicago, Illinois during the 1940s was quite the story, seeing it would be two decades before interracial marriage would become legal throughout the United States. Grateful for their union, they brought into existence not only a woman who would eventually be my mother, and a righteous convert to Judaism, but a story of American history that is rare and mostly unconsidered.
My mother’s grandfather’s great-great-grandfather, John Nicholas Gibbs was from the royal House of Stuart, fighter in the American Revolutionary War alongside General George Washington, and a descendant of the first 10 founding members, with Anne Hutchinson, of Connecticut Colony. John Nicholas crossed the ocean with his family, He fought for me and for you, and in the most pure sense, the American Dream. Little did Grandpa Nicholas know though, that he would share a familial link with Charles McGruder, my mother’s grandfather’s great-great-grandfather, an African slave. Charles was just a few states south of Nicholas, living in Greene County, Alabama. Though their many overwhelmingly clear differences, together, in some kind of way, they fought together, they lived together, and they died together, in the name of freedom, a chapter that has yet to be fully unravelled and untethered in American history.
As proud as I can be, despite the sufferings of my peoples, it is this freedom, that fills my heart as a rabbi and Jew of Color, and it is this freedom that fueled my ancestors on this American soil to fight for their freedoms. As a Jew that survived two slaveries, born and raised in Monsey, New York, I have one message for us to consider this MLK Day: I may come from a family of freedom fighters, but as Jews so do you, and as Americans so do you.
“And you shall tell your children on this day saying, ‘for this reason God took me out of Egypt (Exodus 13:8).’”
וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְהוָה לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם.
Many commentators say that we proclaim this verse in a loud voice when the matzah and maror (bitter herbs) are placed before us on Passover. We look at the bitter herbs, we look at the dry matzah and we say that these symbols stand as the “reason, בעבור זה” for our freedom from oppression and servitude to independence and autonomy. Every other day but the Seder night, the symbol that Justice reigns. And the “reason, בעבור זה” that the evil of 2016 cannot and will not prevail, is our name “Israel” (“He who wrestled with God and Man and prevailed”) and days like MLK Jr. Day that is reason enough. Just as in those days, It was this longing for independence and freedom that fueled my ancestors John Nicholas Gibbs and Charles McGruder, and it was that longing for a right to speak, a right to weep a right to plant and a right to sleep that empowered my ancestors to demand freedom, so too in these days.
And so, how can I stand idly by on this day, deeming it at as a long weekend at best? As Jews, as free people, let us remind the world that Justice prevails, let us sing the songs of freedom, from the Sea to Selma, let us celebrate with our fellow Americans, Black, White or Hispanic–it is who we are.
“Who lowers the proud towards the earth, Who elevates the fallen low to the heights?”
משפיל גאים עד ארץ מגביה שפלים עד מרום
–(Siddur, The Morning Prayers)