Monday morning, July 6, dawned clear and refreshingly cool for Detroit in the middle of summer. This was a welcome pleasure for the more than one thousand Federationists who assembled in the Wintergarden outside the convention headquarters hotel to prepare for the third annual March for Independence. Designated affiliate representatives picked up state signs while other marching teams and delegations found one another and hoisted homemade banners in anticipation of the 5K walk-a-thon, a route that largely followed the beautiful RiverWalk Promenade and culminated in a rally at Rivard Plaza.
Since this year's rally location was close to the convention facility, event organizers were able to orchestrate a mini-march for those unable to walk the entire distance. Starting about thirty minutes later, these march participants were easily able to join the enthusiastic parade as it passed back by the hotel en route to Rivard Plaza. Bedecked in March for Independence T-shirts and caps--premiums awarded for raising different levels of money for the Imagination Fund--Federationists were easily identifiable as a uniformed and united mass of humanity.
As the march began, Kevan Worley, chairman of the Imagination Fund, told the marchers that NFB President Marc Maurer had lit the Torch of Freedom, a large torch symbolizing hope, opportunity, and ambition for the blind of the nation. Cheered by this gesture and buoyed by the good-humor of the unified throng, marchers chanted slogans and casually talked among themselves as they wound their way around the scenic, pedestrian-friendly march route. As often happens in large Federation gatherings, these occasions become opportunities for experienced blind people to mentor those in need of support or simply to show a little human kindness to one another. One marcher’s cane was broken while walking along, so another marcher offered him a cane to use.
As people streamed into the plaza, they were greeted with music from the platform public address system that energized the early-morning gathering. Many were given freedom bells to ring while others received small white flags featuring our logo, Whozit, to wave. Kevan Worley, dressed in a sharp white blazer, served again this year as the master of ceremonies for the march rally. As people settled in for the rally program, Kevan announced that several of the youth from the Michigan affiliate were bringing the Torch of Freedom into the plaza and onto the stage. He also promoted our Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar, even enticing the crowd to chant "<USMint.gov.>"
Kevan then introduced Michigan favorite son and longtime Federation leader Allen Harris to welcome the marchers and to introduce his protégé and current Michigan affiliate president, Fred Wurtzel. President Wurtzel welcomed all to Michigan and lauded the participation of the several Michigan youth who carried the Torch of Freedom into the rally.
Marchers were next introduced to a series of local dignitaries in attendance to salute the presence of the NFB in Detroit. Larry Alexander, chief executive officer of the Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau, took the stage to promise that Detroit's business community would roll out the red carpet for the NFB convention and to pledge his support and appreciation for the work of the Federation. He encouraged everyone to take full advantage of the many new attractions that Detroit had to offer during our stay. Former Detroit Pistons basketball star and now Mayor of Detroit Dave Bing said, "Continue to do what you do. Thank you for being here and God bless." Finally, Dave McCurdy, president and chief executive officer of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, came from his home in Virginia to offer tidings to us on behalf of the automobile manufacturing industry, still one of Detroit's biggest industries. Mr. McCurdy was scheduled to address the convention later in the day, and he came early to pass the entire day with the Federation.
Kevan next introduced Mark Riccobono, executive director of the NFB Jernigan Institute, to preside over a brief program highlighting some of the Institute's initiatives. Since the work of the NFB Jernigan Institute is the main national beneficiary of Imagination Fund dollars, event organizers showcased the wide-ranging purposes that this hard-won revenue supports.
Mark first introduced NFB of Illinois President and National Board Member Patti Chang to talk about Freedom Link, the Illinois affiliate's version of the model Transition Club program that the Institute first piloted in Baltimore. According to Patti, Freedom Link provides hands-on experiences with blind mentors that cannot be obtained in school or in orientation and mobility lessons. Exporting this youth mentoring program to affiliates around the country is one effective way that the work of the Institute reaches out to blind people. Patti introduced Joe, a sixteen-year-old Freedom Link participant, who said, "My favorite part of Freedom Link has been meeting new people. I can't thank you enough for providing these Freedom Link outings to me. I'm now motivated to accomplish real tasks in the real world." Similarly, NFB of South Carolina President and National Board Member Parnell Diggs spoke of the Imagination Fund grant that his affiliate received to promote Braille literacy. He presented two Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollars to a teacher and student who directly benefited from the Braille literacy program made possible through the Imagination Fund grant awarded to South Carolina.
Boniface Womber, a student from Ohio, spoke to those at the rally about his experience last summer at the Junior Science Academy for elementary-school-age students interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. "Before I went to JSA last year, I had good science instruction, but I had not had much hands-on experience. I was so excited about what we covered that I could not wait to tell my dad." Marla Palmer, president of the Utah Organization of Parents of Blind Children, spoke glowingly of attending the parent track that ran simultaneously with this student course: "I attended jam-packed sessions on Braille literacy, multisensory learning, IEP development, and nonvisual skills instruction. Let's raise money to educate, empower, and dream big."
Inspired by the stories of Federationists who have benefited from the work of the Imagination Fund and the efforts of the March for Independence, Federationists were primed to hear from NFB President Marc Maurer. Here is what he said:
The Emancipation Proclamation granting freedom to the slaves of rebellious states of the Union was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. What is emancipation? We are told that it is the act of setting people free from somebody else’s power or releasing them from dependence. When will the blind be emancipated? When will dependence be eliminated from our lives? When will others cease to assert that they have a right to control our destinies—to keep us in their power?
Our emancipation comes from our own actions, comes when we have decided it will, comes from the plans we make and the decisions we put into effect. As long as the administrators of rehabilitation programs can decide for us whether we will attend college classes of our own choice or be subject to their decisions, as long as the college administrators can tell us that electronic books are for everybody else but not for us, as long as the officials in the Department of Education can tell us that our right to choose the program of rehabilitation training where we will learn Braille or independent travel is limited by the decisions they make, for just this long we are confined, restricted, limited to the stultified imagination of ignorant bureaucrats. Do we have the right to learn? Do we have the right to read? Do we have the right to obtain rehabilitation training in the programs we find most beneficial? Why, why do the bureaucrats always think that they know more about what is good for us than we know ourselves?
This day we stride forth from the largest gathering of the blind to take place this year anywhere in the world. We take our destiny into our own hands, and we make our declarations with the joy that comes from an unquenchable determination. We have the power to march, we have the power to alter the future, we have the power for our own emancipation, and nothing can keep us from it. The process has already begun. We demand opportunity for ourselves and for those who come after us. We demand education for ourselves and for those who come after us. We demand access to information for ourselves and for those who come after us. We demand the right to full participation for ourselves and for those who come after us. We reject dependence, we reject control, we reject the notion that we are subject to the dictates of others. Our lives belong to us, and we demand all that the system of American law and political thought promises. Not in some future time, but today—not in some remote location, but here—not for a different generation, but for us and for those who come after us—we demand that this right be recognized, and we demand it now!