Braille Monitor November 1986
Dear Dr. Jernigan:
I have been thinking a lot recently about the letter Nadine Jacobson wrote to you almost exactly a year ago. Her words moved me when I first read them, but I did not really think that I would ever find myself in a similar situation. Now, having been through my own arrest experience, I can testify to how much it means to be part of a movement in which other people stand ready to support one. I can also say that Nadine and Steve's dignity and courage in the face of strong provocation somehow lent me strength and calm.
I traveled to the convention this year on TWA. Our itinerary had us change planes in St. Louis to TWA flight 323 June 26. Judy Nichols and I arrived early at the Cleveland Hopkins Airport. There were problems with the scheduling of our return flights, and we had been told to make certain that we really were on the proper flights for the return. The ticket agent certainly realized that I was blind. She made the usual flustered efforts to point out where my baggage should be placed. She then gave each of us four boarding passes, telling us that these insured that we would have no trouble on the return flight. Would that she could have insured the same for the flight that evening.
We had no difficulty on the first leg of our trip. I did take advantage of having an open-minded sighted person at my disposal to study carefully the safety information card in the seat pocket, an opportunity I rarely have since I do most of my air traveling alone.
When we landed we learned that our connecting flight was an hour and a half late. We boarded the plane and took our seats. At that point I discovered that our seats 18-A and B were in the exit row. Recognizing that there could be trouble, I was scrupulous in stowing my cane in compliance with FAA regulations. I then familiarized myself with the hand hold and the handle on the door and made certain that I knew what instructions were printed there. These consisted of the word "Pull." Judy and I discussed whether it would be advisable to bring the door into the cabin as airline personnel are taught to do or better to throw the door out where exiting passengers might land on it. I tell you about this conversation to demonstrate how seriously I took my responsibility as a person seated in that row.
A female flight attendant soon arrived to inform us that we would have to move to row eight. I asked why, and she explained that the row could not be blocked. When pressed to explain in what way the row was being blocked, she said that it was a federal law that "people with your handicap can't sit in exit rows." We then had the discussion that has become tiresomely common. She assured me that an FAA inspector on board had told her that it was a law. He would not come speak with me, but he did eventually confirm my contention that the rule in question was a TWA policy filed with the FAA.
I should say that all this time the temperature in the cabin and passenger tempers were rising. The air conditioning was out of order. I am happy to say that I remained calm. In the first moments of the confrontation I noticed that my pulse was racing, and I could feel adrenalin spurting through me. But I soon calmed. It helped more than I can express to have Judy beside me and, by the greatest good luck, to have Pat Eschbach in the seat immediately in front of me. Since Bob had to spend a few extra days at his job, Pat was traveling alone. She got busy converting her seat mate and the nun in front of her. That was the extent of the sympathy I had in the passenger list of 156.
A parade of officials came to my seat, as well as a few stray passengers, like the man who had the bright idea of putting me in first-class. He had the grace to leave again as soon as he recognized that my stand was being made on principle. Other passengers shouted from time to time that I should defend my principles on my own time. I did my best always to articulate my regret that so many people were being inconvenienced by TWA's adherence to a foolish policy, but only one man on the plane came to understand the importance to me of my refusal to be degraded by moving. As one might have anticipated, he was black; and though he began by denying that this was a question of civil rights, he sat down to talk with me. He never was thrilled with the delay, but mercifully, he stopped harassing me.
A woman, alleging that she was an attorney, tried condescendingly to persuade me to see my lawyer tomorrow, because, "Honey, you don't understand that this is going to cost you thousands." When I explained that one of my lawyers had himself been carried off a plane a few months before, she accused me of "getting the idea from him. You wouldn't be trying this stunt now if he hadn't put the idea into your head." I am afraid that I was rather firm with her at this point. She whirled and told a member of the crew that she would help carry me off.
The member of the cockpit crew who sallied forth to do battle with me was the only TWA staff member who was truly courteous. He admitted that I was clearly competent to deal with an emergency but said that this was not the point. The problem was that the pilot would not take off knowingly in violation of a TWA policy. At this point I told him, if so, there was only one thing to do. They must have me arrested because I was not going to move. The pilot eventually came to assure me that they could not put the lives of 156 people at risk, and I assured him that violating this policy would not do so, but that if he were morally compelled to comply with an unjust policy, he could save a lot of time if he would arrange for my arrest.
The police had already made one appearance, which abruptly ended when the female officer in charge of the band of three learned that a TWA agent had assigned my seat knowing that I am blind. With great disgust she announced, "We're out of it. This is between TWA and this passenger." When TWA actually made the complaint of peace disturbance at the police station, this group of three did return, but the woman officer refused to arrest me. She said hotly that she had received no direct order to do so, and she would have nothing to do with it. Officer Mahon made the arrest and processed the paperwork. He was very courteous and made no bones about disliking TWA. As he took my statement, he commented that he himself had never prepared for sitting in an exit row. Without actually saying so, he left me with the impression that he thought TWA's stand was foolish.
When I was released I learned that I could still catch a flight to Kansas City. When we got to the gate we realized that it was flight 323 with 154 unhappy passengers who were not delighted to see me again. The compass had failed at about the time that the air conditioning had been repaired, and eventually TWA decided to transfer the passengers to another plane. Most of the people contented themselves with dirty looks directed at Judy and Pat since they could appreciate them fully. There were, however, a number of young students returning from Europe. They had led the applause and jeers as I was taken off the plane. They now formed a line for me to pass along as I walked to the jetway. They made a number of scathing and condescending comments for my benefit. Remaining silent at that moment was almost the hardest part of my ordeal. At the jetway our tickets were snatched and new boarding passes substituted. Fleetingly I wondered if I should object, but I was nearly at the end of my rope. I made my way to row twenty, where a stewardess was waiting to insure that I did not try to take my old seat. She then engaged in the most thorough and demeaning lecture on the safety features of the plane that I have ever endured. I can usually turn these monologs off, but all I succeeded in doing was eliciting a shrill, "I'm only doing my job."
Somehow I managed to doze on the flight, but I roused as the crew were bringing around the complimentary drinks. I needn't have bothered; we were not offered anything. As Judy and I left the plane, the only member of the crew to speak to me was the officer in the cockpit who had acknowledged that I was competent.
I ask myself now what has been accomplished. When the head of security for TWA in St. Louis called me to say that the charges had been dropped, our conversation demonstrated clearly that he still believes that I violated a federal law and that blind people have no right to sit in exit rows because they will impede rapid evacuation of the plane. The other passengers for the most part are now hostile to our cause. Most of the crew and ground personnel are in the same condition.
On the other hand I did not waver from the course I knew to be right. I conducted myself with dignity under difficult circumstances. More importantly, people who were not involved have heard about what happened to me. My hometown newspaper carried the story on the front page, and a number of people have gone out of their way to tell me of their support. Several members of Congress have already heard my story and are disturbed at the injustice of what we face. Most of all, we are stronger--all of us. Just as all of us are diminished when any one of us is forced to break faith with principles, all of us are energized when any one of us finds the courage to stand by our principles. The National Federation of the Blind enabled me to stand up for myself and for all of us. I know that we will win this battle for self-respect and equality. We are right, and the justice of our cause will give us the strength we need.