Braille Monitor                                                                           October 1986


Black Civil Rights, White Civil Rights:
The Nature of Freedom

by Elijah E. Cummings

(Elijah Cummings is Chairman of the Black Caucus of the General Assembly of the State of Maryland. He is also a true friend of the blind. He came to the convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Kansas City July 2, had to return home for an important meeting that evening, came back to the convention July 3, spoke to the delegates, stayed through the banquet, and left July 4. His remarks were powerfully delivered and brought forth an enthusiastic response.)

In the minds of many, the civil rights movement has come to represent civil rights for a single class. This is a most short-sighted attitude, which prevents progress and stifles development. It has been observed that for one of us to be free, all of us must participate in liberty. If we are not mindful of freedom for our neighbors, who can complain when we lose our own? As President Truman observed, "In the cause of freedom we have to battle for the rights of people with whom we do not agree; and whom, in many cases, we may not like.... If we do not defend their rights, we endanger our own."

A vital element of a full life is liberty. To the extent we have it, our lives can flourish, our horizons can expand, our plans can magnify, our dreams can become reality. To the extent that we lack the essential element of freedom, our lives are diminished, our future is stultified, our dreams will perish. This is true not only for some of us, but for all of us. If we are prevented by arbitrary and capricious means from attaining an objective, we lose a part of the life that could be ours. It is not simply a personal loss. If a child is prevented from gaining an education, the accomplishments which that child might have made will never be enjoyed by his neighbors. Both the individual and the society at large are diminished by this discrimination. When one loses, we all lose.

I am chairman of the Maryland Black Caucus--the largest black caucus in America. Early in life I came to appreciate the need for civil rights in the Black Movement. I learned that civil rights is not merely a good thing to do; it is vital to the growth of these United States; it is essential to a future with promise. The black civil rights movement is close to my heart. It taught me to recognize the principles of liberty, and it gave me the vision to nurture those principles wherever I found them. Two years ago a man came to me with a problem. A health spa had decided to prohibit blind people from becoming members. The owner said that the blind were not suited to enter the club. He went so far as to say that blind people could not join the club for their own safety and their own good. "The blind might fall and hurt themselves," he said. Despite his outward appearance of kindness, this health club owner displayed capriciousness and prejudice to the blind. I began to work with the National Federation of the Blind to solve this problem. I must tell you that the association has been both pleasant and productive. To begin with, we solved the health spa problem. At my request, the Attorney General of Maryland issued an opinion declaring that the White Cane Law made it illegal to prevent the blind from entering a health club. Through carefully orchestrated public appearances and demonstrations, pressure was brought to bear. Finally, the health club owner changed his policy.

That was my first encounter--and it was at the grass roots (or, I might say the sidewalk) level. I walked with Marc Maurer, Jim Omvig, and other members of the National Federation of the Blind to the health spa door and called on the owner to let us in. We walked as brothers and sisters--not as black or white, not as male or female, not as blind or sighted, not as old or young. Those things were not what was important. We walked to that door together and knocked to come in. We came as equals--seeking first-class status, and expecting to have it--asking for nothing more than the fulfillment of human dignity and expecting to earn it.

That was my first encounter with you, the members of the National Federation of the Blind. You are my kind of people. We solved a specific individual problem. The next step was to change the law so that the problems could no longer exist. Do blind people deserve the minimum wage? Of course they do. Should blind people have the right to sue for a court order to prevent discrimination when it occurs? Of course they should. Is the seventy percent unemployment rate for blind people an indication of massive discrimination? Of course it is. We faced these problems in the Maryland legislature earlier this year. To solve them, we adopted legislation which declares that blind people at Blind Industries and Services of Maryland are guaranteed the minimum wage. Victims of discrimination because of blindness have the right to sue for an injunction. Finally, we created a Governor's Commission to study the problems faced by the blind in Maryland. This Commission will report to the 1987 legislature and will recommend legislative changes. All of this was accomplished in one year.

In August 1984, I met your president, Dr. Jernigan, for the first time. We held a press conference at the National Center for the Blind. Dr. Jernigan spoke to the reporters about the arbitrary and irresponsible behavior of certain airline officials. He said that the blind of the nation were no longer willing to tolerate discrimination and that one plan under consideration was the nationwide shutdown of a selected air carrier. Blind people were being told that they must be segregated in seating. Those with dog guides must sit in the bulkhead row. Some blind people were informed that they must board the plane before all other passengers. Certain airlines continued a policy requiring blind people to be dead-last off the plane in an emergency. Blind people had been arrested for peacefully demanding the right to equal treatment. The Federation and its members had written hundreds of letters. Federation officers had tried negotiation. Complaints had been made to public officials. The response was universal--the blind were told that they were oversensitive. Surely one seat on the plane was as good as another. Obviously, some minor inconvenience was caused, and there might even be a little injustice. However, both airline representatives and public officials agreed that the alleged discrimination against the blind was simply not all that important. The question raised at the press conference by President Jernigan was the same as the question raised 20 years earlier in the black movement. If the letter writing fails, if negotiations break down, if complaints to public officials are ignored, what is left but confrontation? Dr. Jernigan presented the case with reason and logic; the reporters understood it and reported it.

As I remember the press conference, I felt genuine surprise. It is rare to find an individual with dynamic leadership. It is also rare to find a person with imagination and originality. Dr. Jernigan is such an individual. Since our meeting in 1984, we have worked closely in partnership to change the lives of blind people in Maryland, but in a broader sense, to bring about a better and brighter future for all people. I can truthfully say that I did not expect blind people to possess the quality of political acumen which I have found or to have the will for self organization which you demonstrate. However, my association with Dr. Jernigan and the rest of you in the National Federation of the Blind has broadened my awareness and deepened my understanding. I feel right at home at this convention of the National Federation of the Blind.

During the years I have worked with the Federation, I have gained great respect for its leaders. Not only does the Federation help to bring greater opportunity to the blind, but it leads the way in eliminating prejudice and promoting independence for others. Marc Maurer, President of the Maryland affiliate, has led the way in establishing policies to protect the rights of the disabled. In my work as a legislator, I consult with leaders in the community to find creative solutions. I can help change the laws, but to develop proper policy, I consult with the people affected. Marc Maurer is one of the people who brings imagination to the problems faced by the blind. In recognition of his work as a leader in Maryland I presented him with a plaque last October 15 (White Cane Safety Day) which reads:

Presented to
Marc Maurer
For Your Tremendous Efforts
In the Struggle for Equality
And Justice for the Blind
And Handicapped of Maryland
by Elijah E. Cummings
October 15,1985

It has often been said that no black person can be free as long as a single black person is enslaved. And no white person can be free as long as a single black person is enslaved. However, it is also true that no black person can be free as long as a single white person is not free. If slavery is tolerated for a single person, no one of us is truly free.

Today we speak of a precious commodity--freedom. One necessary element of this precious article is the opportunity to exercise individual power--the right to make a choice. Freedom implies the absence of arbitrary domination. If this opportunity to exercise individual power is completely lost, there is total bondage. However, this is not the way it happens. A tiny bit is lost here, and a thin slice is taken there. A job is not available. An educational institution refuses to open its doors. A health club tells the blind to keep out. Complete domination is not demanded, but free choice is restricted so that individual power may not be exercised--and thereby liberty is lost.

Discrimination is a blight--a cancer that kills. It may not end a physical existence but it can destroy the meaningful lives of its victims. If you deprive a human beinjr of a single breath, the damage is not great. Stop a person from breathing for two minutes, and there will still be life, though it may be painful. If the time climbs to ten minutes, the victim dies. Although discrimination is not ordinarily a physical attack, it is no less destructive to a joyous and meaningful life than a cancer or a choke hold.

Discrimination takes away a vital part of life. The opportunity to exercise individual power is vital not only for each person involved but also for the community as a whole. The power of a community or a nation is derived from the power possessed by its citizens. Discrimination prevents an individual from exercising power and robs the community of the energy which would be created by that individual choice.

One view of wealth would have us believe that for one section of our society to have worldly goods another must be in poverty. There is never enough to go around. The pie is always too small for everyone to have a piece. For me to have wealth, I must take it from my neighbors. This is the opinion that some people have of economics. This view is not only destructive, but it is wrong. There is more wealth in our country today than ever before in history, and more people share in it. In order to create wealth, we must get more hands and more minds working to devise methods for bringing it about. We must bring people to understand that we all have a stake in the well-being of our community and its members, and we all share in it. Rather than redistribute an inadequate supply of goods, we must create more goods. In America we have demonstrated that this can be done. The job is not finished,' we have not yet made economic opportunity available to all. However, we have begun. A large segment of the American population has the opportunity to earn a living wage. But this opportunity must be extended to others. Black Americans have an unemployment rate which is twice or three times as high as the unemployment rate for those who are white. Blind Americans have seventy percent unemployment rate. These numbers are a dramatic demonstration that we have failed to solve the problems for these minority groups. For some people these unemployment statistics are disheartening and debilitating. For me they are a clarion call for action. They demand that we focus our efforts and concentrate our resources. They insist that we redouble our commitment, and that we work, plan, and build.

Just as it is with wealth, so it is with liberty. To achieve equality we must raise the standards, heighten the expectations, and increase the opportunities for those who have not had them. There is not a finite and limited supply of freedom to be divided up. If those without freedom are to have it, it will not be necessary to take it from their fellow human beings. What we must do is create more liberty, more opportunity, and more free choice. If we do so, we help to contribute power to our nation. With increased freedom comes individual benefit, but with it also, we build a nation with more power and more promise. You of the National Federation of the Blind understand these principles and strive for this goal. This is why it has been my great pleasure to work with you. We have built freedom in the past, and we will continue to do so in the years ahead. The program we have laid out is morally right, economically sound, and politically practical. It means nothing less than dignity and freedom for us all.