PHOTO/CAPTION: Jamal Mazrui
More Than a Question of Membership
by Barbara Pierce
Federationists will remember that in the fall of 1990 the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind expelled Jamal Mazrui, who was living in Massachusetts at the time. The charges dealt with disruptive tactics, attempting to incur organizational expenses without approval, and attacks on the organization and its leaders outside the organization. After a futile attempt to get the 1991 National Convention to reverse the Board's decision, Mazrui joined the American Council of the Blind--and there, apparently, the matter ended.
However, in the spring of 1997 Al Sten-Clanton (one of Mazrui's long-time friends) told President Maurer that Mazrui would like to apply for readmission. Sten-Clanton said that Mazrui had had a change of heart and wanted to come back.
Mazrui, along with Sten-Clanton and his wife, came to the National Center for the Blind on Saturday, May 24, 1997, to talk with President Maurer. This meeting resulted in the exchange of a series of letters and the ultimate agreement that Mazrui could apply for reinstatement to membership and that he would be accepted and welcomed.
The August, 1997, issue of The Braille Forum (a publication of the American Council of the Blind) carried an article by Mazrui, stating that he was a member of the American Council of the Blind. In view of the assertion in Mazrui's letter of May 28, 1997, to President Maurer that: "If accepted as a Federationist, I would resign as a member of the American Council of the Blind. . .," one must suppose that the Mazrui article was submitted to the ACB prior to his meeting with President Maurer and that the article was subsequently printed without his prior knowledge and consent. To presume anything else would be to impute to Mazrui not only a misrepresentation of the truth but also a pattern of behavior that could not be anything other than transparently counterproductive.
It is certainly true that members of the Federation can submit articles to any publication they like. It is also true that I don't know whether Mazrui's formal reinstatement has been accomplished. But the moral question is the same regardless of the technicality. He indicated in a letter of July 21, 1997, to Lloyd Rasmussen, who is one of the NFB of Maryland leaders, that he had been permitted to join and wanted to know the time and place of the next chapter meeting. Here are the pertinent letters between President Maurer and Mazrui. They do not so much deal with an individual as with patterns, with different behavior on the part of different people and organizations, with philosophy, and with morals:
Silver Spring, Maryland
May 28, 1997
Dear Mr. Maurer:
I appreciated the time and hospitality you shared with me and the Sten-Clantons last Saturday. Our discussion and the company of Federationists there confirmed my interest in being considered for membership in the National Federation of the Blind.
The Federation has inspired my thinking and action more than any other personal or political philosophy. I've participated in various consumer organizations over the years and found no other to be as much a force for good. Since I believe in concerted political action, I would like to participate in the organizational vehicle with the most promise for achieving social change. If accepted as a Federationist, I would resign as a member of the American Council of the Blind in order to better focus my energy.
In addition to the volunteer labor, financial support, and project leadership generally expected of members, contributions of mine to the Federation would hopefully include such things as government information, technology skills, and contacts with other consumers and professionals.
If you or other NFB officers wish to discuss any relevant issues about this application for membership, please feel free to call me. Thank you for your consideration.
June 20, 1997
Dear Mr. Mazrui:
Quite some time ago Al Sten-Clanton told me that you would like to be reinstated as a member of the National Federation of the Blind. I told him that your actions at the time you left the Federation and subsequently were such that I doubted you would want to meet the conditions of membership, but he said he thought you had had a change of heart. Therefore, I told him that I would be glad to meet with you.
On Saturday, May 24, 1997, you and Mr. and Mrs. Sten-Clanton came to see me here at the National Center for the Blind. You said that you had participated in the activities of the American Council of the Blind and that you felt that it was not in the mainstream of progress in the blindness field. You said that you would like to rejoin the National Federation of the Blind, and I told you that I would bring the matter to the Board of Directors for their consideration.
Under date of May 28, 1997, you wrote to me formally asking that you be reinstated. You said that the Federation had inspired your thinking and action more than any other personal or political philosophy and that you had found no other organization to be as much a force for good.
I have now read and discussed your letter with the members of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind. They were sympathetic to your wish to be reinstated as a member of the Federation but wanted to be certain that such an action would likely bring a positive result, both for you and the organization. Specifically, they wanted me to ask whether you were willing to indicate in writing your intention to abide by the policies and Constitution of the National Federation of the Blind if reinstated. In that connection I call your attention to that portion of Article VI of the NFB Constitution which provides that no member may "indulge in attacks upon the officers, board members, leaders, or members of the Federation, or upon the organization itself outside of the organization." Article VI further provides that "The organization will not sanction or permit deliberate, sustained campaigns of internal organizational destruction by state affiliates, local chapters, or members."
Beyond that, the long-standing policy of the National Federation of the Blind is that policy decisions of the Federation are binding upon all members and that affiliates and members must participate affirmatively in carrying out such policy decisions.
My purpose in bringing these matters to your attention is not to be abrasive but the exact opposite. Before taking action, the Board and I want to be certain that you and we have the same understanding of basic issues. As you know, the Federation is the largest, the most inclusive, and the most open organization in the blindness field, but we believe that democracy cannot exist unless members are willing to abide by votes taken and policies made. We trust that you share these views.
As soon as I have your response, I will bring it to the National Board, and we will move with dispatch to take action. Meanwhile, I thank you for coming to see me, and I thank you for your letter.
Marc Maurer, President
National Federation of the Blind
Silver Spring, Maryland
June 23, 1997
Dear Mr. Maurer:
Thank you for the content and tone of your June 20 letter, conveying that the NFB board is generally sympathetic to my application for membership, though it seeks clarification on my views of some organizational principles. This letter responds to that inquiry and in the same spirit highlights principles I trust the board also supports, in order that our understanding be common and productive. Though I would be but one of thousands of members, I believe my acceptance as one, having the same rights and responsibilities as any, would mean a positive result for me, for the Federation, and most important for the integration of the blind into society on a basis of equality.
Let me reassure the board that it is not my nature to engage in public attacks upon individuals or organizations even if I disagree strongly on an issue. I have learned that passion serves best as an engine of justice, and reason as a pilot of tactics. I have also sharpened my understanding of the distinction between advocacy inside and outside an organization I hold dear.
I trust that disagreement with an NFB leader or an exercise of internal appeal is not considered an attack by itself. Similarly, I trust that an internal-issue campaign--even one involving a persistent minority viewpoint--is not by itself considered a campaign of destruction or an unauthorized sub-organization.
In the unlikely event that a disagreement arises as to my adherence to NFB policy, I assume that disciplinary action would not be taken without prior good cause and good faith negotiations on the matters of contention. If such discussions occur and I understand that the board interprets a policy in a way I could not accept, I would probably resign as a member, concluding that sincere irreconcilable differences exist which make it better for me and the organization to simply go our separate ways without ill will.
Let me close by committing myself, if accepted as a Federationist, to the NFB Membership Pledge (as found in the 1996 convention program of the NFB of Massachusetts):
I pledge to participate actively in the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind to achieve Equality, Opportunity, and Security for the blind; to support the policies and programs of the Federation; and to abide by its Constitution.
P.S. I will try to attend the upcoming convention in New Orleans. If I do so as an NFB member, I would appreciate it if you could at some point make a public statement to that effect, thereby clarifying this status to Federationists there.
July 10, 1997
Dear Mr. Mazrui:
The Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind has met and considered your letter of June 23, 1997, in which you reiterate your request that you be reinstated as a member of the National Federation of the Blind and pledge that you will abide by the policies and Constitution of the Federation if accepted. As you know, an individual becomes a member of the Federation by applying to a local chapter or state affiliate.
The National Board has decided as follows: Since you now live in Maryland, you are free to apply to any local Maryland chapter or to the state organization for admission to membership. You will be welcomed and will have all of the privileges and responsibilities of any other member, with the following stipulations and understandings:
You may not apply to the NFB of Massachusetts for membership or be accepted as a member by the NFB of Massachusetts without prior agreement by the National Board of Directors. There is too much residue from the past to make such an application anything other than a focal point of ill will and controversy.
If you wish to apply for membership to any Federation affiliate besides Maryland, there must be prior agreement by the National President. The Board feels that this will avoid possible misunderstanding and disharmony.
You will need to abide by the commitments you made in your letters of May 28, 1997, and June 23, 1997, and by the spirit and substance of the letter I sent you dated June 20, 1997. With particular respect to your June 23 letter, you need to understand that, if a disagreement arises between you and the Federation as to whether you have violated a policy of the Federation or the organization's Constitution, the Federation must have the final decision in the matter. This is true of any organization if it is to have meaning and integrity. For that matter, it is true for society as a whole.
I would hope that what I have said makes sense to you, and I tell you again that you will be welcome to come back to the Federation if you like. There is much to be done, and the Federation is the organization to do it.
Marc Maurer, President
National Federation of the Blind
Here are Jamal Mazrui's and Lloyd Rasmussen's e-mail exchanges dated July 21 and July 23, 1997, respectively:
Mazrui: As you may know, the National board of the NFB has permitted me to rejoin the organization. Can you let me know of meeting times, locations, and dues of local chapters in Maryland?
Rasmussen: The chapter most convenient to you is the Sligo Creek Chapter, which covers Montgomery and northern Prince George's Counties. Dues are $4 per year, and we usually meet early in the afternoon of the second Saturday of each month. Normal meeting time is 1:00, but the location (one of the Montgomery County public libraries) is not quite pinned down for September through June. In August, on the 9th, we will be having a chapter picnic at the home of Frank Stark in Wheaton, starting I think at 2 or 3 p.m. I think you will find Sligo to be a good, mid-sized, active, and diverse chapter. The chapter president is Debbie Brown. You can also call Judy or me for more information.
We need a wide variety of members with different skills who are willing to work together in changing what it means to be blind and to bring fresh ideas to the cause. We look forward to seeing you participating in the NFB and its Sligo Creek Chapter.