Braille Monitor August/September 2007
At 6 a.m. on Tuesday, July 3, 2007, Bruce Peters, one of Affiliate Action Committee Chairman Bruce Gardner’s chief lieutenants, was already at work in the lobby of the Marriott Marquis Hotel. Much of the following photo story is his report.
By some miracle Tuesday, July 3, had dawned almost chilly in Atlanta. Folks were already trickling into the lobby. It would be thirty minutes before even the coffee shop opened. They came down the elevators and escalators; they came by car and taxi and van; they came in wheelchairs, with guide dogs, and with white canes. The trickle turned into a flow and then a flood of humanity as best guesses of between a thousand and fourteen-hundred marchers gathered on Harris Street to take part in the NFB’s first-ever March for Independence, a five-kilometer walk that climaxed a yearlong fundraiser first imagined eighteen months earlier. How did a 5K walk take eighteen months to complete?
In the winter of 2005-2006, leaders of the organized blind were looking for new ways to accomplish the Federation’s objective of changing what it means to be blind. How could we increase awareness of the capabilities of blind people; how could we raise significant money to support the notable work of the Jernigan Institute? The March for Independence was conceived, and in July 2006 at the Dallas convention Kevan Worley announced that a year later in Atlanta, a city that had hosted civil rights walks in the sixties and the Olympics in 1996, the organized blind too would march to declare to all the world our own desire for security, opportunity, and equality--our own civil rights march.
Before President Maurer took that first early-morning step, eighteen months of preparation had taken place to get ready. The city of Atlanta had to approve both the march and the route through the city. The gathering place, Centennial Park, falls under state jurisdiction, so the NFB had to get state approval for its use. At length both approvals came. The march route had been carefully planned, and police prepared to assist, closing the road before us and opening it behind. In the four days leading up to the march, planners and NFB marshals walked the entire route step by step, time and time again, planning every move, trying to anticipate every obstacle, timing every checkpoint. We meticulously planned each leg of the route, and we made numerous visits to Centennial Park to determine the smoothest entry, maximum seating, and most efficient exit for the multitude. We attempted to anticipate virtually every traffic pattern, road construction, marcher need, and of course the weather. Would it rain? Thunderstorms had repeatedly battered the city since Saturday.
Would it be cold and windy? Hot and muggy? We took case after case of bottled water and snack bars donated by Nestlé, Shamrock Foods to Centennial Park. Would we have medical emergencies during the march? Six electric golf carts circulated through the throng as it snaked through the streets of beautiful old downtown Atlanta. A nurse with a two-way radio rode on one of those carts. Vans stood by to transport tired marchers as necessary. Four buses, one a red British double-decker, carried those physically unable to march but mentally and emotionally determined to participate.
Leading the wave of humanity through the streets was a sound truck with Kevan Worley almost single-handedly providing inspiration and encouragement to the crowd. He initiated cheers and repeated the ones he heard begin in the street. He invited leaders in the vanguard to cheer the marchers on. When passers-by stopped to watch our progress, he told them what we were doing and why. His monologue was tireless and good humored.
Lisa Hamilton, president of the UPS Foundation, and Dr. Tuck Tinsley, president of the American Printing House for the Blind—both march sponsors—actually walked the route with us. Two other sponsors, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Comcast Cable, helped to publicize the event. The Journal-Constitution published a large ad the preceding Friday and also covered the event, and Comcast Cable broadcast a public service announcement about it.
Nearing Centennial Park, the unimagined happened. Fire trucks with lights flashing and sirens wailing responded to a structure fire on the very same street and block as the throng of marchers. The firemen cut our snake of marchers in two. Disaster? Nope. As in Louisville two years before when fire alarms chased conventioneers from the Galt House Hotel, the blind took it all in stride, and the tail of our snake paused for a moment, then detoured around the obstacle and rejoined the great jubilee gathering.
marchers entered the park, they picked up water and energy bars, and some were
lucky enough to be handed a cool can of Red Bull soda dispensed by volunteers
from Nestlé. Many marchers found seats on the broad steps. The medallion
winners, who had raised at least $1,000, were urged to stand at the front. A
number of people briefly addressed the crowd. The first was NFB Treasurer Pam
Allen. This is what she said:
Good morning, brothers and sisters.
can imagine it, you can be it. If you can dream it, you can become it."
Last year we announced a march, a march to demonstrate the independence and true capabilities of blind people, a civil rights march that would shatter misconceptions about blindness--that would demonstrate to ourselves and to the world the true power of the National Federation of the Blind.
We are here this morning to celebrate--to celebrate the power of collective action and the spirit of independence embodied in the National Federation of the Blind. We are here today to pay tribute to the leaders of our movement who paved the way for us by their sacrifice and commitment so that we might enjoy the freedoms we have today. We are here to make a difference, to build a future full of hope and opportunity.
When we began to plan this march, there were those who said it could not be done. We have proven them wrong. Our combined efforts have raised more money than we imagined. As the treasurer of the National Federation of the Blind, I would like to extend my sincere appreciation to each of you for your tireless efforts and unparalleled dedication. The money we have raised will make the future brighter for generations to come; it will help turn our dreams into action. We are who we are because of each of you, because of your work and unwavering commitment to changing what it means to be blind.
We are the
blind speaking with one voice. Together we stand. United as one we cannot be
defeated! We are the National Federation of the Blind. Thank you, fellow Federationists.
President Maurer also had stirring words.
What is the meaning of independence? How do we know if we have this precious commodity? In our society it means to be responsible for the disposition of ourselves—to decide what we will do, when we will do it, how we will do it, and (at least in part) what we can expect to gain from it. Children do not have independence; they must ask permission. Those without economic capacity have limited independence; they must ask the banker.
The blind face a diminution of these expectations of independence. For us the unemployment rate is staggeringly high at more than 70 percent. We have only recently been able to persuade the members of Congress to tell the publishers and the school districts to get our books to us on time in our grade school and high school classes. Only about 10 percent of us in school are being taught to read Braille. The school districts almost never teach us to travel independently, and many of them (whether they say it or not) prohibit the use of travel aids for the blind or discourage their use to such an extent that the students and their parents quit fighting about it. College textbooks are often not available to us, and we frequently cannot cast an independent secret ballot. If we can't even vote without somebody else looking over our shoulders, is it any wonder that only very few of us are active in the political realm?
Beyond all of this, much of the time we, the blind, are told by all and sundry to sit and wait. This is one method of diminishing our independence. This summation is one way to express the condition of the blind today—no job, no independent vote, no books, no participation in politics, no education, no lessons in the skills of travel, no Braille literacy. What is the meaning of independence? To all of this summation we respond: You may think the description is true, but it is not. You may think we should wait, but we will not. You may think that we should not be a part of the economic power of this great nation, but we know better, and we will do what we know. We are alive and well and on the move.
We will build
our economic force; we will insist on the right to a secret ballot; we will
get our education; we will find a way to literacy; we will learn to travel;
we will participate in the political community; and we will no longer wait while
you who think you know what's best for us make decisions about the nature of
our lives and the concept of independence for us. Those who have told us to
wait misunderstand what we are, but we have faith that the time of misunderstanding
will pass and the time of recognition will come—the time of recognition of the
talent that we have—the time of recognition that we have a right and a responsibility
to participate in the culture of America. Today our Independence March has said
these things in a visible way. Today our Independence March has demonstrated
our capacity to be abroad in the land. Today we have altered the nature of the
meaning of independence. Our march takes us from one place to another, but it
also alters our processes of thought. The words “immobile,” “peaceful,” “sedentary”
become “energetic,” “aggressive,” “dynamic” because the people that inhabit
the words have caused the metamorphosis. A time will come when we will be recognized
for what we are, when we have created a climate of understanding, when our capabilities
will be known and valued. This march brings that day closer than it has ever
been. This march speaks to our sighted colleagues but also to us of a day of
true equality. This march creates for us a new kind of independence.
Though Honorary March Chairman Ambassador Andrew Young was unable to join us for the march, his wife Carolyn was present and addressed the crowd. But the most electric moment of the program came when veteran civil rights marcher, Congressman John Lewis, stepped forward to address the crowd following a delightfully warm introduction by Host Affiliate President Anil Lewis. This is what they said:
Anil Lewis: It is indeed my deep honor and pleasure to introduce an icon to my family, an individual whose efforts, unbeknownst to him, have made a tremendous difference in the lives of many, many American citizens. I like to refer to him wonderfully as “my cousin from metropolitan Troy, Alabama”--the phenomenal, the outstanding, yet still humble Congressman John Lewis. [applause]
Congressman Lewis: Good mornin’, good mornin’. Welcome to Georgia, though you are not from Georgia. Those who are not from Atlanta, welcome to Atlanta. Mr. President, my cousin Anil Lewis, Thelma Godwin--let me just say I am so pleased, happy, and delighted to be with you today here in Centennial Park, here with members of the National Federation of the Blind March for Independence. [applause] The Almighty God is looking down on us today with this wonderful weather. It is not raining. It is not hot. It is a good morning.
Over one thousand of us here today demonstrate the true independence of the blind. We speak with one mighty voice, for we are one people. We are one family, human family, and it should not matter whether we are blind or whether we see; we are one people. We are all human. [applause] We must find a way to value each other. We must find a way to live together. We must find a way to make peace with each other. You can make a difference in our society, and you are making a difference by being here this morning.
During my lifetime I have marched a great deal. I marched in Washington on August 28, 1963, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I was only twenty-three years old. I had all of my hair, and I was a few pounds lighter. [laughter] But in that speech I said then, and I say to you today: Some of you tell us to be patient. You tell us to wait, and I said then, and I say now, we cannot wait. We cannot be patient. We want our freedom, and we want our independence now.
You must continue to stand up, stand up, stand up. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said long ago: “When a person straightens up his back, no man, no person can ride you if you stand, straighten up your back, and walk with dignity and walk with pride.” You cannot be silent. You must make some noise. You must get out there and push and pull for what is right, for what is fair, for what is good.
When I was a young man, very young, growin’ up in rural Alabama, I tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and racial discrimination. I didn’t like it. I’ve asked my mother, I’ve asked my father, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents about segregation, about racial discrimination. And they said, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in trouble. Don’t get in the way.” But one day I heard the words of Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio, and I was inspired to get in the way. I got in trouble. It was good trouble. It was necessary trouble. You must find a way to get in trouble. By coming to Atlanta, you are getting in trouble; it is necessary trouble. [applause] I got arrested a few times. I got arrested forty times. I was beaten and left bloody at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery, Alabama, and a concussion in Selma; but I didn’t give up. I didn’t give in. You must not give up. You must not give in.
You have decided to get in trouble—good trouble. You have learned like we all learned before— we didn’t have a Web site. We had never heard of the Internet. We didn’t have a fax machine. We didn’t have a cellular phone, but we used what we had. We used our marching feet, and that’s what you’re doing today—marching for independence. I say to you today, if you follow the leadership of the National Federation of the Blind, if you continue to get in the way, you can make it possible for blind college students to get the textbooks they need. You can make it possible to fill the corner library with the books you need. You can help reauthorize the Rehabilitation Act. You can assure that blind people receive equal pay for equal work.
Today you have proved that you have the courage. You have the ability. You have the capacity to get in the way. Get in the way, and stay in the way. You must continue to get in good trouble, necessary trouble, until we build a wall of equal opportunity for the blind. I stand with you today. I am with you today. I will be with you in Congress, and I will be with you tomorrow. Mr. President, as I close, and Cousin Anil, I must tell you that, when I was growing up in rural Alabama many years ago, I had an aunt by the name of Soniva. And my Aunt Soniva lived in what we call a shotgun house. She didn’t have a green, manicured lawn. She had a simple, plain dirt yard.
Sometimes at night you could look through the holes in the ceiling, through the tin roof, and count the stars. When it would rain, we got a pail, a bucket, or tub to catch the rain water. From time to time she would walk out into the woods and get branches from the dogwood tree and tie these branches together to make a broom, and she called it the brisk broom. She would sweep this dirt yard very clean, sometimes two and three times a week. I know most of you from Minnesota, Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Mexico, Texas, Massachusetts, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Washington, D. C., have never seen a shotgun house, and you don’t know what I’m talkin’ about. But in the nonviolent South a shotgun house, old house one way in, one way out, where you could bounce a basketball in the front door and it goes straight out the back door. One Saturday afternoon a group of my brothers, sisters, and a few of my first cousins--we were all playin’ in my Aunt Soniva’s backyard. An unbelievable storm came up. The wind started blowin’; the thunder started rollin’.
The lightning started flashin’, and the rain started beatin’ on the tin roof of this old shotgun house. I became terrified. Started prayin’. I thought this old house was going to blow away. She got all of us children together and told us to hold hands. We cried and we cried. If one corner of this house appeared to be lifting from its foundation, she had us walk in that corner to try to hold the house down with our little bodies. When another corner appeared to be lifting, my aunt had us walk to that corner and try to hold the house down with our little bodies. We were little children walking with the wind, but we never ever left the house.
Call it the house of the National Federation of the Blind. [applause] The rain may beat on our house. The lightning may flash. The thunder may roll, but you must never ever leave the house. We must hold the house of the National Federation of the Blind together and hold it down. Stay with the house. We are one house. We are one people. We are one family. We all live in the same house. It doesn’t matter whether we are black or white or Hispanic or Asian American or Native American. It doesn’t matter whether we can see or whether we are blind, so hang in there. Don’t give up. Stay with the house. Keep your faith, and keep your eye on the prize.
the ceremonies ended, we marched out of the park and back to the hotel, actually
arriving ahead of schedule. The March for Independence drew to a close in the
enormous ballroom of the Marriott Marquis, where the thunderous drums of the
Atlanta Drum Line Band accompanied the dancing, clapping crowd as they found
their way to their delegations, and the gavel fell opening the first general
session of Convention 2007. Hundreds had marched that crisp Atlanta morning,
and more than 99 percent of those that began the march at dawn crossed the finish
line just as they had started: enthusiastic, hopeful, and determined to be a
part of the dawn of complete civil rights for all, the blind included.