What Is Dr. Jernigan's Legacy to Us?
by Peggy Elliott
I've attended twenty-nine conventions of the National Federation of the Blind. This is my twenty-ninth. Long habits are hard to break. I have found myself, when I have finished riding an escalator, listening to see if Dr. Jernigan is here; when an elevator door opens, hoping that he's on the other side; when I enter a room or leave one, hoping that he is where I'm about to be--what a wonderful life, to be the person that everyone wants to be next to.
What is Dr. Jernigan's legacy to us? Answers come tumbling into the mind: stimulating conversation about blindness and everything else; good times with food, wine, treats (he always had just what you wanted); the National Center for the Blind; a set of towering speeches in that unique voice that could stir or soothe, motivate and unify. No single phrase can capture Dr. Jernigan's legacy to us, except for one: he left us the National Federation of the Blind.
I suppose in a sense that is obvious. But what is this Federation that he left us? It is not a building or words or memories. Rather Dr. Jernigan left us a fully developed community. To appreciate the legacy we hold and to use it as he intended, we must first understand the gift.
Dr. Jernigan gave to us the Federation core principles about the truth involving blindness, explained and applied in hundreds of specific situations in his speeches. These core principles about blindness are ability, equality, and the need for us individually and collectively to assert ourselves; and those principles can be heard in his speeches in all the different situations about which he knew. He also knew that unforeseen situations would arise and that the Federation would be challenged to apply the core principles to those new situations. He left us, then, the core principles and the tools to use them.
But he knew that was not enough. He had heard people say as we all have: Well, I agree with what you Federation people say. I just don't agree with how you do it. Besides, I just don't have anything in common with older blind people or with unemployed blind people since I have a job. I have a family, too, and responsibilities among the sighted. The Federation is just not my thing.
Dr. Jernigan gave to us the core principle that the Federation is not just principles. The Federation is also and equally people--good people. People who have spent their money, and often their SSI money, to make life better for all blind people. The Federation is people, people who give of their time even more than of their resources to learn the other principles, to live the principles, and to teach them to others. The Federation is people who have taken the time to grow and who have taken the time to help others grow. The Federation is people who have taken the time to learn that people unlike themselves in every way but blindness are their brothers and their sisters, that the common bond of blindness can be used to build bonds, to build community, and to build success for all blind people, even for those blind people who refuse to give of themselves for the greater good. The Federation is principles and people interacting, learning, teaching, growing, taking and giving strength, affirming the good in one another, ignoring or overlooking that which does not appeal, offering a hand to change for the better to someone who may not realize or even believe change is possible.
The Federation Dr. Jernigan gave us is a community, a place where principles live through people. You can not have the principles in some sort of hazy, beautiful space up above us. Neither can you just have the people who say they care about one another. You have to have both interacting on each other, day by day, month by month, year by year, to have the Federation that Dr. Jernigan built and loved and gave to us. That is how and why the Federation, with its truths about blindness first articulated in 1940, will remain vibrant and valuable into the twenty-first century and beyond. The Federation will do that by blind people learning the principles from each other, refining and improving their understanding through collective action, and applying the basic truths to new situations and new challenges.
Maybe there is another way to say the same thing even more simply. Dr. Jernigan understood that nobody is interested in blind people. The people most uninterested in blind people are we blind people ourselves. He resisted. He said that we are, each of us, worthy people. He said it to us, to me when I felt that my life was ended due to blindness. He said it personally to many of you and in his speeches and writings to people he had never met. He guaranteed, not success for each of us, but he guaranteed and convinced us and made us believe that we had the capacity for success. He then convinced us that we had worth and that we had something to give. Then he taught us to master the principles and to join the other people in the National Federation of the Blind.
That progression in Dr. Jernigan's mind guaranteed a better future for blind people. What he gave to me, I challenge myself to give to others. And I challenge each of you to do the same. Dr. Jernigan's legacy to us is the most marvelous legacy any of us will ever receive. It is the legacy that we can and must give away for it to be effective. What a wonderful way to end a wonderful life: Dr. Jernigan, with President Maurer's help, we promise that the legacy you gave to us we will give away as fast as we can.