Braille Monitor January 2006
A Reflection on Martin Luther King
by Ed McDonald
From the Editor: On January 16, 2005, Ed McDonald, one of the longtime leaders of the NFB of West Virginia, was asked to take part in a service celebrating Martin Luther King Day at Grace United Methodist Church in Keyser. As a former member of the NFB board of directors and a past president of the West Virginia affiliate, Ed was not about to miss such an excellent opportunity to discuss the struggle for civil rights of blind Americans, even as he paid homage to the life and work of one of the greatest figures in modern American history. This is a moving tribute to Dr. King and to Kenneth Jernigan, and it is a fine example of the way to use any occasion to educate the public about the work of the National Federation of the Blind. This is what he said:
The invitation to take part in a program to remember and celebrate the life and the spirit of Dr. King is a little like one of those class assignments in which you’re asked to write a theme about the impact of (you fill in the blank) upon my life. If you take it seriously, the assignment causes you to think more carefully and precisely about a subject that you’re sure you already understand at some level but which you’ve really never taken time to articulate. Well, I’ve done a little of that careful and precise thinking about Dr. King’s life and about my own, and these are some of the things I understand about the impact he has had and will likely continue to have upon my life.
First, unlike those who have studied Dr. King in depth, I recognize that I am not steeped in his words or the details of his life. I cannot quote extensively from his speeches, and I’ve not yet read one of his books. Nevertheless, as a person who happens to be blind, I do understand that his leadership of a widespread movement for civil rights and social change actually inspired and assisted us as blind people in a similar struggle. At the same time I understand that my experience as part of a so-called minority population in our society helps me to understand and appreciate more completely the wisdom, the strength, the courage, and the commitment of a man like Dr. King. You may not have thought much about it, but the collective experience of blind people in our society is indeed very much like that of racial, ethnic, or other social minorities.
It was in 1968, the same
year Dr. King died, that I joined an organization called the National Federation
of the Blind. I did it mostly because I was invited by some really nice people,
not because of any real crusading spirit for the equality of the blind. Nevertheless,
as I attended conventions, listened to speeches, and read the literature, I
began to understand in a new way what it really means to be blind and what we
need to do to free ourselves from the bondage of what could well be called second
class citizenship in our society.
The leader of the Federation at that time was Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. He was a lot like Dr. King. First of all he was blind. That made him one of us. He was also well educated, intelligent, articulate, and wise. He understood that the greatest problems blind people face have more to do with prejudice and discrimination than with the mere lack of eyesight. He also understood how important it is for blind people to join together and work together to change what society believes about blind people and to change a system of law and tradition that help to keep many blind people out of the social, economic, and political mainstream of modern life. He was able to communicate his ideas in a way that helped us understand the reality of blindness, and at the same time he inspired us to work for change. He knew how to plan, strategize, and build a strong and successful movement, and it has been a privilege and a blessing for me to be part of that movement. What I learned from Dr. Jernigan about confidence, courage, and self-respect as a blind person has helped me to grow and mature and cope with the kinds of obstacles that all blind people have to deal with.
So what does this have to do with Dr. King? I believe that, if Dr. King had not drawn people together in an organized and dedicated struggle for basic human rights, if he had not made the nation more aware of the evils of prejudice and discrimination, and if he had not emerged as he did at a crucial time in history, blind as well as black people would not have experienced the understanding, opportunity, and courage that have helped us organize and assert ourselves as we have been able to do. In the same way, the revelation and inspiration I drew from Dr. Jernigan have helped me to understand in a very personal way the kind of excitement, enthusiasm, and determination that a generation of black Americans felt as they listened to Dr. King’s words and proudly joined him in the struggle for freedom and justice.
But Dr. King’s impact upon my life is not limited to the notion of being blind and thus a part of a social minority. As the stepfather of two biracial sons, I understand that Dr. King’s words as well as the results of his efforts still have a lot to do with the acceptance, the opportunities, and the fulfillment that these two young black men will experience in their lives. I understand that as African Americans their legacy is Dr. King’s legacy. With the help of Dr. King’s words and his example, I have a better understanding of the prejudice and discrimination that my stepsons will continue to experience in their lives more than thirty-five years after those words were spoken.
So here we are, a room full of people, gathered together on a cold afternoon in a quiet little West Virginia town. Some of us are black; some of us are white; some of us are blind. Each of us has come to this place by a different path. All of us are here to talk about, think about, learn about, even sing about a man named Martin Luther King. Our nation has declared his birthday to be a holiday. Each of us will experience that holiday in his or her own individual way, but coming together in a place like this is a way for a community of us to experience a part of the day together. The idea of coming and working together was an important part of Dr. King’s message, and so it is certainly appropriate for us to do this.
As I thought about the words I might bring to this gathering, I took time to listen again to a couple of Dr. King’s speeches. They turned out to be the famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial and the so-called “I’ve Been to the Mountain” speech in Memphis the night before he died. As I listened to those words, I was again reminded that his message was far more than warm, comforting words about an ideal world where we all love and get along with one another. It’s true, he assured us, that it’s not an impossible dream, but he also talked about what we need to do to make the dream come true. He wasn’t afraid to address the hate, the greed, the prejudice, and the injustice that were still very much alive in his world. He was not afraid of a nonviolent struggle to achieve those things he believed to be right.
Thanks to Dr. King and to the generation he inspired and led, life is better today for black people and for blind people as well. It’s hard to find any more “whites only” signs or asylums for the blind. Employers are not likely to tell us we can’t have a job simply because we’re blind or black or both.
Nevertheless, at the risk of falling victim to clichés, I must also say that it’s still far too easy to find hate, prejudice, injustice, greed, and violence around us in today’s world. I guess that means Dr. King’s work isn’t done.
Perhaps the details of today’s struggle are a bit different—maybe even more complicated—and the tools we use to do the work have evolved and have perhaps also become more complex since Dr. King’s time. Yet his portrayal of the dream and his call to action are just as real and no less urgent than they were then.
So as we look back and think about the impact of Dr. King upon our lives, let us also look forward, remembering the things Dr. King taught us, and finding new ways to keep his legacy alive by continuing to do the work he called us to do throughout the rest of our own lives. Thank you for the opportunity to be part of this event and to share with you some personal thoughts about the life and the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King.