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Dr. Jernigan shakes hands with Congressman Elijah Cummings.

Elijah Cummings
Member of Congress

From the Editor: Congressman Cummings delivered the following remarks at the memorial service:

I welcome this opportunity to join Mary Ellen Jernigan and all of you as we remember and honor the life of a remarkable man. To Mrs. Jernigan, to Kenneth Jernigan's daughter Marie, to his brother Lloyd, I have stopped by here to let you know that I miss Dr. Jernigan more than I can ever express. But I just cannot be sad today. We come here today, not because he died, but because he lived. When I consider the six thousand days of Dr. Jernigan's life which God allowed me to share, the memory that transcends all others is the continuing power of his friendship. That is why most of us are here today—to celebrate his life. Coming together like this brings us closer to the man who became an important part of our lives, the man who adopted each of us into his extended family of optimism, self-determination, and mutual respect. Kenneth Jernigan gave us the three most valuable gifts any person can give to another: he gave us his friendship. He called upon us to pursue the best that is within us, to apply our abilities to a vision of inclusion. And President Jernigan put us to work to help everyone see our shared humanity.

I cannot be sad today. I am convinced that Dr. Jernigan, my friend, is here with us in spirit. Dr. Jernigan, don't worry; we're still working hard to do what is right. So I came here today to thank Dr. Jernigan and his wonderful wife Mary Ellen for everything they are giving to my life. Let me repeat what I just said: "Thank you for what you are giving to my life." With his graduate degree in English, Dr. Jernigan, master teacher of the English language, will appreciate my use of the present progressive tense. As long as we live, as long as the people we are able to help and touch live, Kenneth Jernigan will be there with us. That is why I used the present progressive tense, the tense of becoming, to describe to you how I feel about Dr. Jernigan. Dr. Jernigan continues to be my friend.

Dr. Kenneth Jernigan showed me in so many ways that he cared about me and about the person he knew I could become. Fifteen years before the people of Baltimore sent me to the United States Congress, Dr. Jernigan predicted that I would become a member of Congress. That's amazing. I will never forget when he told me that; I said: "He's out of his mind." Dr. Jernigan believed in me; he predicted a future that I myself had not seen. He believed before I believed.

When I think about my friend, I recall some words from a song by a Minnesota woman named Patricia McKernen. She said these simple words that are so profound: "Like a river we must learn to be moved by the currents we cannot see." Dr. Jernigan had a sixth sense about things like that, the ability to see human potential where the vision of others was blurred by stereotypes from the past. Dr. Jernigan was also a friend who thought about life in a clear and precise way but always spoke from his heart. In all the years we worked together, he always spoke freely and honestly, sharing his vision of what we were supposed to be doing, of the people we were meant to become.

Let me say this to all those who might have a sad heart today: a friend who is unafraid to touch our hearts may go away but will never depart. That is why I know that Dr. Jernigan is here with us today. So I will repeat to Dr. Jernigan what I said earlier: my friend and brother, don't worry; we're still working hard to do what is right. Thank you for the friendship and the help you gave us and the help you are giving us right now.

Dr. Jernigan also called upon us to achieve the very best that is within us. He taught us that we would gain society's respect only by stressing our abilities and not our limitations. He taught us that we have to transform our vision of a better world into action. NFB President Marc Maurer was talking to a staff member of mine about how fourteen years ago Dr. Jernigan called upon us all to come down to a fitness center in Laurel, Maryland—not too far from here—which had refused to allow blind people to participate. They had slammed the door in his face, but he kept coming back with more and more people—you know that was his way—never to be discouraged, holding a protest right there in front of the center. We were polite and determined, and before long the center and Dr. Jernigan had reached what I would call a meeting of the minds.

President Maurer's story about integrating the fitness center reveals part of Dr. Jernigan's method of taking action, but only part. Dr. Jernigan's vision is that we open doors to opportunity by opening people's minds. He understood what Gandhi understood: to accomplish any difficult task, we must speak to people's hearts as well as their minds. Revealing who we are, our strengths as well as our limitations, our joys as well as our suffering, is what opens the minds of others to a deeper understanding of our shared humanity. That is the second gift we owe to Dr. Jernigan. He helped people believe that each of us has value, that our abilities are more important than our limitations, that we really can change people's hearts and minds.

Dr. Jernigan not only stressed the abilities we all can develop if given the opportunity; he taught us that we have both the right and the obligation to apply our beliefs to a vision of humanity greater than ourselves. The mission of the National Federation of the Blind is not only to advance the abilities and rights of people whose sight is impaired, but Dr. Jernigan taught us that the NFB's mission is to advance the abilities and rights of all people. Dr. Jernigan was not simply an advocate for the blind; Kenneth Jernigan was a human rights advocate. He understood and he helped millions of other Americans to understand how much better all our lives will be when we become a country of opportunity for all, not just a few. Dr. Jernigan would not accept the idea that there should be one America for others and a second America for the blind.

That is why I think that Dr. Jernigan's third gift to us and to the world is our shared calling, the gift of sight. He helped us to see better that we must be one America. He helped us to see better that we must be a nation that gives opportunity to all of our people. He helped us to see better that we all have abilities. He helped us to see that everyone wants and needs to contribute to our shared community. We must never forget that the important work being done by the National Center for the Blind, a few blocks from here in South Baltimore, is the historic work of America. The NFB's efforts are not limited to helping sight-impaired people cope with their limitation. Those efforts are important, but the larger mission of the National Center for the Blind is to help all America see. The NFB is about the business of showing the world that every person has value.

In conclusion, I stopped by simply to thank Dr. Jernigan for all that he has given to us. For he has not gone; he has merely left for a few moments. He lives in the hearts of every single one of us and in people we do not even know. Let me leave you with the words of a song that my mother loves and sings all the time:

When peace like a river attendeth my way,

When storm clouds like sea billows roll,

Whatever my plight, thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

I am sure that Dr. Jernigan is looking down on us, saying those words over and over and over again. "It is well, it is well with my soul." May God bless you, and may God bless America.