This story was originally published on January 19, 2015.
Last week, just a few days before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I was hit with a stark reminder of how present race and racial discrimination are — as much as many would like to pretend those days are over. A coworker and I had picked up lunch and stopped by her bank on our way back to the office. She headed back to the ATMs, and I stood in the lobby waiting for her with a brown paper bag in my hand. Then, an employee approached me and said curtly, “Deliveries need to go through the back door.”
I was confused at first, and then I realized what was happening. This person had assumed I was a delivery guy because I look Middle Eastern. I’m not — I’m white and Jewish — but I'd just been racially profiled. It was almost funny, but more importantly, it was a taste of what anyone with dark skin goes through on a daily basis. It reinforced for me that racism and the fight for racial equality is everyone's problem.
My great-grandfather was a civil rights leader back in the day. His name was Kivie Kaplan, and he was a fierce activist and advocate. He spent nine years as the president of the NAACP, and in 1965, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. They were jailed together several times, and during the Freedom Summer, he went to Mississippi to register black voters. He was an organizer who traveled the country selling lifetime NAACP memberships. By the time of his death in 1975, membership had gone from 221 to 53,000. I grew up seeing pictures of him alongside Dr. King and other civil rights leaders.
Kivie, born in 1904, was one of the last in a long line of Jewish figures to lead civil rights organizations. Family lore tells me that he felt compelled to get involved because during his honeymoon in Florida, he attempted to go inside a country club, but the sign outside read “No Jews, No Dogs.” When he returned to his car in shock, Kivie’s African-American driver told him he understood how he felt; the driver wasn’t even allowed outside without an escort. This incident was a part of what compelled Kivie to act. He believed firmly in the Jewish idea that we were all created in God’s image, and so, at the age of 28, he joined the NAACP to help promote equality for all.
Now, more than 80 years later, I'm around the same age Kivie was when he got involved in the movement. It's MLK Day, and demonstrations are planned against the racial injustices in Ferguson, New York City, and elsewhere. I think if Kivie were around today, he’d be disappointed that we’ve made such little progress, and I know he’d encourage me to get out there and do something.
But, I’m not Kivie. Unlike him, I’m not a march-in-the-streets type. As saddened as I am by the injustices of what’s been going on between police departments and minority communities, even the thought of marching in the streets with big crowds makes me feel physically anxious. And, I have to admit, I find it hard to imagine change when the system is so broken.
I’ve always been proud of my great-grandfather, and I'm trying to find my own way to follow in his footsteps. After Hurricane Katrina, I went down south to the affected areas and helped out doing repair work. I was working in some of the same towns where Kivie had put his life on the line to help end segregation. While I was there, I thought about how he could have lived a very comfortable life as a Northeastern Jew with a successful business in Newton, MA, summering on Martha’s Vineyard. He could have shut out the rest of the world, but instead, he was always the first to volunteer to go where help was needed.
I believe that there are lots of ways to be an activist. When I was first coming out as gay during my teenage years, I thought it was important to speak openly with anyone who seemed uncomfortable with me. Multiple times people expressed to me that I changed their perception of gay people.
I know, from Kivie, that one-on-one interaction can be powerful. Whenever my great-grandfather met someone, he famously handed them a card that said “Keep Smiling.” (Once, he mistakenly gave one to an ultra-conservative policemen and ended up fleeing the man’s shotgun, but even that didn’t stop him.) He used the cards to open a dialogue. People tend not to talk about things that make them uncomfortable, and race and injustice are certainly in that category. Like Kivie, I can’t pretend things aren’t happening when they are, and I know that it’s on me, and on all of us, to fight injustice, even if it’s just one conversation at a time. I'm starting now.
Gabriel Sands told his story to Maggie Mertens.