An address delivered by Professor Jacobus tenBroek, President, National Federation of the Blind, at the annual convention of the NFB, New Orleans, July 6, 1957
From the Editor: By 1957 the growing strength and influence of the NFB could no longer be ignored by the agencies in the blindness field. Agency officials recognized that either they would stop the blind consumer movement or consumers would begin to have a significant impact on the blindness field and the future of services available to blind Americans. The speech that Dr. tenBroek delivered at the national convention on July 6, 1957, reviewed the history of self-organization among the blind and articulated our justification for protecting the right of the blind to organize and the efforts of the agencies to force their blind clients back into subservience. The right-to-organize bill introduced by Senator John F. Kennedy did not in the end become the law of the land, but the attention it focused on agency efforts to destroy the Federation helped ensure the continued existence of the NFB even as blind people willing to toady to sighted agency directors pushed the organization toward civil war. Here is Dr. tenBroek’s powerful speech:
The National Federation of the Blind stands today an embattled organization. The attacks upon us, always present but once few and scattered, have vastly increased in number and bitterness. They represent not merely differences of opinion among reasonable men, or the ordinary disputes of divergent and competing groups. Our motives have been impugned; our purposes reviled; our integrity aspersed; our representative character denied. Plans have been laid, activities undertaken, and concerted actions set in motion for the clear and unmistakable purpose of bringing about our destruction. Nothing less is sought than our extinction as an organization.
What is the organization thus bitterly under attack? The National Federation of the Blind is a nationwide association of blind people—the only such group in the United States. It was founded in 1940 upon the principle that the blind themselves have the right and duty to unite on the basis of their common bond and to assume the leadership of their common cause. There are many organizations for the blind in America—charitable societies, social worker groups, custodial agencies: organizations created by other people with plans and programs for the blind in the shaping of which the blind have had no voice. There is only one national organization of the blind, administered by as well as for the blind, in which the blind themselves determine their own policies and programs and find the solution to their collective problems—that is, the National Federation of the Blind.
Who are the members of this federation of the blind? The organizational meeting of the Federation consisted of hardly more than a dozen delegates from organizations of the blind in seven states. But the democratic idea of free and independent organization, for purposes of self-expression and self-determination, spread rapidly into all corners of the land. Today the Federation is truly national, with affiliated organizations of the blind in forty-three states and individual members in the rest. The National Federation is the sum and center of these state associations, which in their turn are composed of the various local clubs of the blind within each state. Every member of each local group is also a member of the state organization and of the National Federation, with the right to serve on committees, speak on the floor, hold office—and generally to participate as a delegate in conventions. The national convention constitutes a gathering of the duly selected delegates of all the state associations meeting to solve mutual problems and to reach common decisions—just as conventions at the state level are a convocation of the chosen representatives of the local clubs and chapters of the blind. Thus the primary governing body of the Federation is the annual Convention: a representative gathering and a democratic institution, in which all significant policies are decided through free and open discussion on the part of all the delegates.
Who are the blind who lead the blind? The national officers of the Federation—consisting of a president, a first vice president, a second vice president, a secretary, and a treasurer—are elected for two-year terms by a majority vote of the delegates to the national convention. These officers, all of whom are blind, together with eleven other elected members, constitute the Federation's board of directors. Neither officers nor board members receive any pay or other compensation for their services. The organization hires a certain number of blind as well as sighted staff, but these people do not serve as officers or board members. It is an important principle of the Federation that elected leadership and staff should be kept separate. Thus decisions of the board truly represent the blind of the nation and not a vested interest. Geographically and occupationally, the officers and members of the board of directors of the Federation are drawn from all parts of the country and many fields of endeavor: two are from Illinois, two from California, and one apiece from Georgia, Wisconsin, Ohio, Massachusetts, Maryland, Iowa, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. One is a speech professor; one a professor of law; one a professor of philosophy and education; one is a housewife; one is a bench machinist; one is an atomic physicist; one is a violinist and insurance salesman; one is a teacher in a school for the blind; one is a teacher in an orientation center; three are businessmen; one is a retired businessman; one is a practicing lawyer; one is a rehabilitation counselor; one is a member of a state public service commission.
What is true of the National Federation is equally true of the affiliated state federations. Our Code of Affiliate Standards points out that "the National Federation of the Blind has grown from the base up, and by its structural nature is the sum of its component state affiliates. Independence, representation, and democracy are the fundamental qualities which inspired its formation and which justify its existence and growth." To this end it is stipulated that affiliated organizations of the blind be independent of other associations, that they be composed primarily and controlled entirely by their blind members, and that they be managed and operated democratically. "This standard requires adherence to the principle that the membership is the primary authority of the organization. Preferably, a general convention of the membership or elected delegates of the membership should be held annually. To assure democratic control, the membership of a state affiliate must meet and its principal executive officers must be elected at least once in every two years. There can be no closed memberships. Procedures for internal discipline should apply equally to each member."
This then is the National Federation of the Blind and its affiliated organizations. It is this representative and democratic association of the blind citizens of the nation which is presently under attack. Most shocking of all to the public and to the uninformed is that the assaults upon us come from agencies for the blind. Let me emphasize that not all of the agencies for the blind are engaging in these assaults. Many of them work cooperatively with the blind and are doing a laudable job. But some of those who hold themselves out to the public as serving the blind and advancing their welfare today spend their time and the public's money making war upon us.
If the course of events is not altered, if these agencies continue in their present path, it may not be too much to say—as one blind man has said recently—that "either these agencies will ruin the blind or the blind will ruin these agencies." No disagreement can be greater than the disagreement with persons who seek to eliminate your very existence. No struggle can be more intense than the struggle for survival.
What is at issue is the right of the blind to organize and to speak for themselves. It may seem unbelievable to some that in this year of grace 1957, at this late day in the history of constitutional democracy, there still are those who question the right of any group of citizens with a common interest, a public purpose, and a democratic structure, to organize for self-expression and to receive governmental protection in so doing. Yet such is the case. We must avow and defend that right. We must awaken the public to the assaults upon it.
What are the grounds on which our right to organize is founded? What is the character of our claim, and how is it to be justified in the face of this challenge? The right of the blind to organize is equally based in law, in morality, in history, in logic, and in common sense. It is at once a human right, a constitutional prerogative, and a public duty. It fulfills the legitimate personal needs of men and at the same time clearly serves a public purpose. The right of organization for all men is a vital prerequisite of democratic government and a necessary condition of mature social life. The right of organization for the blind is no less than this, but it is also something more: it is an immediate and urgent obligation if the opportunity of self-expression and self-determination is not to be ignobly lost—for our generation at least, and perhaps for generations to come.
Let us hold in mind the blatant utterance a year or two ago by a prominent agency official (the executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind): "A job, a home, and the right to be a citizen, will come to the blind in that generation when each and every blind person is a living advertisement of his ability and capacity to accept the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. Then we professionals will have no problem of interpretation because the blind will no longer need us to speak for them, and we, like primitive segregation, will die away as an instrument which society will include only in its historical records."
Let us accept this challenge. Let us do this benefactor of ours the service of hastening the time when he and his kind will indeed die away as historical curiosities as the blind secure not only the rights of citizenship, not only the right to organize and speak for themselves, but the recognition and authority to make that voice heard in the counsels of government and society.
The right of the blind to organize is, first of all, a fundamental human right. In the language of an earlier day it is a natural right deriving from the moral law of God and nature. In the language of our own day, it is a basic need arising from the deepest springs of human character. Man, in an ancient phrase, is a social animal. His very manhood, his distinctive human quality, is fulfilled in the process of free association, of mutual sharing and voluntary cooperation with his fellows. No need is more instinctive or more natural to him than that of belonging, of joining, of becoming part of something larger than himself. To deny him the inalienable right of voluntary association, the right to organize with others sharing a common purpose and a mutual bond, is to deprive him of the vesture of civilization and restore him to the brute existence of the jungle. It is, in short, to deny his humanity.
As there is a universal human need of association among men, so are there particular interests and differentiated wants. There is still no better test of the stability and freedom of a society than the degree of encouragement it affords to the natural diversity of such free groupings and affiliations. It has always been the trademark of tyranny to undermine and destroy wherever possible the right of voluntary organization as incompatible with the total allegiance of the individual to the state and its agencies. In this policy the totalitarians are shrewdly correct, for such primary associations as the blind federations interpose a formidable barrier to unwarranted intrusions by public and private agencies into the privacy and dignity of citizens, to efforts to "divide and conquer" by isolating the blind people of the nation one from another, and to policies continuing them in dependence upon the agencies. In a democratic, as opposed to a totalitarian society, the opposite is true: the right of all men, blind as well as sighted, to express their various and divergent needs through free and unrestricted association is not only formally guaranteed but consciously and actively promoted.
Let us be on guard, as citizens of a self-governing democracy, against those who would disparage the right of any group to organize for the legitimate purposes of self-expression and self-determination. For it is not only the tyrant who seeks to discredit and undermine such progress toward independence on the part of the disadvantaged, the excluded, and the oppressed. There are always those whose strength is derived from the social exploitation of their service to the weak; those who turn to their own advantage the disadvantages of others; those whose own peculiar organization feeds upon the products of disorganization. Let us beware especially of those who tell us that we have no right to organize, but who speak themselves from the platform of a powerful and elaborate organization. Let us be vigilant against the sophistries of those who deplore self-organization of the blind as exclusive and reactionary—yet militantly resist our efforts to transcend poor laws, sheltered employment, and perpetual dependency. Let us recognize, finally, that the most immediate and compelling incentive to effective organization of the blind is that of sheer self-protection and mutual defense against the domineering arrogance of many of those who have appointed themselves our protectors and custodians.
Indeed, the oldest and most durable of motives for human organization is that which arises from the inherent right of collective self-defense—the need of mutual protection—on the part of groups of men confronted with exploitation of exclusion. In our own day the "protective society," the "defensive league," are quite as common as in any earlier period. There is obvious truth in the cautious comment in one very well-known text that "subjected as they were from earliest times to social ostracism and misunderstanding, it is not surprising that the blind found it convenient, where they existed in sufficient numbers, to organize among themselves." The blind may not always have found it "convenient" to organize—on the contrary, such activity was and still is often extremely perilous and inconvenient—but what is certain is that self-organization was and still is both natural and necessary if the lot of the blind is to be improved. In fact, we know that self-organization by the blind has occurred throughout the world, in virtually all ages. In Asian countries, for upwards of a thousand years, there have existed guilds and associations composed exclusively of the blind, which possessed full legal and social status and effectively safeguarded their members in the established means of livelihood.
But it was in Europe, during medieval times, that the guilds and brotherhoods of the blind were probably most highly organized and successful in their purpose. One of the most significant of these self-contained groups was the "Congregation and House of the 300," organized in Paris in the thirteenth century. In this brotherhood lived men and women who governed themselves through a popular assembly and were, within the monastic limits of the enterprise, apparently self-sufficient. However, it is worth noting that the autonomous and self-governing character of this brotherhood was gradually undermined by elements antagonistic to their independence. The author of From Homer to Helen Keller tells us, "Both the administration and the statutes of the congregation underwent in the course of time a number of changes, with a considerable loss to the blind of their original rights and a corresponding increase of the influence of the sighted." How familiar a ring does this description have for many of us today.
Other "free brotherhoods of the blind," as they were called, flourished throughout Europe during the middle ages. Most of them were in the form of guilds; and it is worth a moment of our time to examine just what their function and import was for the blind of this period.
It is sometimes argued today, in books about the blind, that these medieval guilds were an unfortunate development because their effect was to separate the sightless from the normal community and thus to reinforce the tradition of segregation. This result, it is suggested, must also be expected from any present-day revival of the principle of self-organization of the blind. But the conclusion ignores two crucial facts which are central to an appraisal of the guilds. First, and most obviously, it would have been much more unfortunate for the blind of the middle ages if they had not been able to organize at all. In a society which looked on blindness either as a punishment or a communicable disease, the blind who were without the protection of organization either perished quickly or were cruelly exploited. Second, and more significant, is the fact that such organizations, far from separating the blind from their community, achieved exactly the opposite result—they were the sole effective means of integration into the community. For the guilds of the blind were in no sense unique or unusual; they existed side by side with a vast proliferation of other guilds within which all men found their place and ordered their lives. Feudal society was closely governed by rules of status, rank, and function; men joined guilds not only for economic reasons, not only for social and psychological satisfaction, but also to obtain effective representation in the affairs of their community. It was the guild member who held full membership and established status, and it was equally the non-member, the isolated individual apart from such associations, who was genuinely separated from the community and regarded as an alien.
The medieval guilds, of course, are long since gone from the western world. But the need of association, the incentive for organizations, has not lessened with the passage of time. Today that need and that incentive have found their satisfaction and consummation in the state and national federations of the blind, minus the regressive features of the medieval guilds. The federations of the blind are restoring to their members the sense of common purpose, of dignity and responsibility, of integrity and community. They are providing a channel of self-expression, an opportunity of self-determination, and a means of direct participation in the policies and programs bearing upon their interests. Through them the blind can seek to articulate their case, directly and forthrightly, to the public as a whole and specifically to government, to industry, to the agencies of welfare. Through them the blind are seeking to secure their freedom from the whole antique apparatus of charity and paternalism.
I have spoken of self-organization by the blind in terms of the inherent right of self-preservation and collective self-defense—the human right of closing ranks in order to repel attack and resist aggression from antagonistic interests. It remains to speak of the affirmative public purpose which such an organization performs within a democracy, the purpose contemplated in the constitutional right to organize.
Embodied in the basic law of our land is the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. If there were no more than this in the Constitution, these words would be sufficient to guarantee the right of association and organization for purposes of public action. But there is more than this. There is the right of organization implicit in the twofold guarantee of freedom of speech and of religion. "Congress shall make no laws (reads the first Amendment) respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech. …" This language constitutes an unequivocal guarantee both of freedom of conscience and of opinion. But what would either freedom amount to without the right of congregation and association which provides the necessary framework for worship on the one hand, and for speech on the other? Just as the free exercise of religious worship requires the right freely to congregate and to organize churches, so the freedom of speech requires the right to organize secular congregations for purposes of self-expression. For the speech which is here encouraged is the speech of public discussion, carried on through social gatherings and voluntary associations.
No clearer affirmation of the inseparability of this right of organized assembly and group petition has yet been made than in these words of Justice Rutledge, speaking for the Supreme Court of the United States: "It was not by accident or coincidence that the rights to freedom in speech and press were coupled in a single guaranty with the rights of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition for redress of grievances. All these, though not identical, are inseparable. They are cognate rights, and therefore are united in the First Article's assurance. …The grievances for redress of which the right of petition was insured, and with it the right of assembly, are not solely religious or political ones. And the right of free speech and a free press are not confined to any field of human interest."
The very success of democratic self-government rests upon the liberty of particular interests and viewpoints to organize in order to achieve effective self-expression and articulation of their claims in the marketplace of ideas. America is a multi-group society, a vast constellation of voluntary associations, each seeking to translate its private needs into public policy or at least to erect a veto against encroachment upon its interests. It is for the public and its representatives to decide, in every contest, which of these particular interests is most consistent with the general interest. What is essential to our system is that every interest be allowed an audience and a fair hearing, so that all the values and competing claims may be taken into account in the continuous process of public deliberation and decision. What must at all costs be avoided is any closing of the circle, any curtailment of discussion or domination of the platform by some groups or interests at the expense of others.
If this much be admitted, the answer becomes obvious to that familiar refrain we know so well: that the interests of the blind are already adequately represented, promoted, and defended by the various agencies and associations now well established in the field. The answer is that these groups have indeed conscientiously represented and defended a set of interests: namely, the interests of the agencies. On occasion their interests have coincided with those of the blind; often they have not. Nor is there anything at all unusual in this divergence. No one, I take it, would seriously maintain today that the interests of labor can be adequately represented in a company union, controlled by management. In the same way, the American Medical Association makes no serious claim to speak for the general public, from which its patients are drawn, but only for the organized doctors. In the same way also an organization of social workers represents, not the public from which their clientele comes, but simply the organized social workers.
Let us be fair about this. It is clearly in the public interest that these organizations of social workers, and of public administrators, and of rehabilitation personnel, should exist and flourish. We may, to paraphrase Voltaire, disagree with what they organize for, but we should defend to the death their right to organize. However, it ought to be made very clear what they are organized for and whom it is they represent. So must we ourselves be equally honest. It would be entirely unjust and misleading for the National Federation of the Blind to pretend that we are representative of the lighthouse keepers, or of the sheltered-shop managers, or of any group at all, other than the blind. What we are entitled to demand is simply that the organized workers for the blind be equally candid in confessing the scope of their representation and responsibility and the nature of their vested interests. Plus one thing more, that they defend our right to organize, as we uphold theirs.
But this is, of course, precisely what they have not done. Those agencies which are waging war upon the National Federation of the Blind do not merely oppose our right to organize, do not merely assert our lack of competence to speak for ourselves with our own voice, but proclaim their own supreme competence to represent us and govern over us. The right to be a citizen, in the words of the agency official quoted earlier, will come to the blind only in that golden age when every one of them is perfect. Only then, declares this official, will "we professionals have no problem of interpretation because the blind will no longer need us to speak for them." We may agree with the hidden promise of this argument that such a far off divine event in which the blind, unlike their fellow men, are all equipped with halos, will never come on earth. But we may also announce that, if the millennium is not yet with us, a day of judgment is indeed at hand: an hour of reckoning for those who seek to corrupt the purposes of the organized blind and prevent their normal progress toward equality and integration, who conspire to subvert and undermine the free institutions of democratic society and dissolve that liberty of congregation and assembly which the laws of men and the laws of nature have alike created.
We have seen in the course of our discussion that the principle of self-organization for the blind, as for all other groups united by a natural bond and common interest, has roots that go far back in history. In large part the traditional incentive for such organization has been economic. Does this incentive still exist? Are the blind today in any significant sense excluded or discriminated against in the ordinary range of trades and callings, skills and professions, or the normal community? The question surely answers itself. For, if there is scarcely any major occupation in which some blind persons are not successfully established, there are fewer yet in which systematic and concerted efforts are not still made to bar the blind from participation on the basis solely of their disability. Yet, for all their profusion and obstinacy, these are not the only barriers raised against fair opportunity and participation by the blind, nor are they, in major respects, even the most formidable barriers. Still more pervasive, frequently more rigid, and infinitely more frustrating, are the defeatist and distrustful attitudes of those custodians and caretakers, commissioners and supervisors, caseworkers and administrators, who continue to operate on the basis of the age-old stereotype of the helpless blind.
To these defeatist attitudes must now be added other barriers—those barbed-wire entanglements and vicious booby-traps which have been newly planted in the path of our movement. The attempts to destroy the National Federation of the Blind, on the contrary, represent the error not of folly but of knavery, the sin not of ignorance but of conscious contrivance. For the authors of these attacks are fully aware of the possibilities open to the blind through the process of self-organization.
Lest anyone consider that this is an exaggeration—that there cannot exist in this day and age any serious opposition to the free and voluntary organization of the blind, that what attacks occur must be few and scattered, and surely without design or concert—let me review a few of the more significant events which have occurred during recent months.
The Council of Executives of State Agencies for the Blind has created a special committee for the sole and exclusive purpose of devising means to combat the efforts of the blind people of any state to organize independently through affiliation with the National Federation. We have known of this committee since its formation last October. Its existence has been publicly announced in a letter written at the time by Lon Alsup, executive secretary-director of the Texas Commission for the Blind, which stated that at the Denver convention of the National Rehabilitation Association, the Council of Executives of Agencies for the Blind "went on record against the practices and policies used by the National Federation and established a committee within its organization to supply information to any state where there was an attempt to organize the state in behalf of the National Federation for [sic] the Blind."
This letter from Secretary-Director Alsup had another purpose than that of confirming the existence of the committee against self-organization of the blind in the National Federation of the Blind. The letter was written as a threat to the blind people of Texas against any effort on their part even to discuss affiliation with the National Federation. In this brazen communication the Texas agency official grossly maligned the members of the Houston organization of the blind and went so far as to issue a threat against the livelihood of a blind stand operator who had dared to express his approval of affiliation.
Not only in Texas! In Colorado the director of Colorado Industries for the Blind, Herman Kline, has used his office as a means of conducting a systematic campaign of hostility and vilification against the Colorado Federation of the Blind and the National Federation. Among other things, Kline had himself designated as representative of the organized agencies at any post office hearings which might be held against the fundraisers of the National Federation. In addition he has issued a report to the governor and legislature of Colorado which consists in part of an incoherent attack upon the Federation and of the survey which we carried out in that state at the request of and with the thanks and praise of the governor himself.
This is not all, nor even the worst. In Arkansas, an agency director, Roy Kumpe, has by his own proud admission been extremely active in circulating, if not in manufacturing opposition to the National Federation of the Blind and our Arkansas affiliate, such charges as those I have recited. He has boasted openly that it is Kumpe who is responsible for instigating the post office investigation against our fundraisers. Kumpe and Kline intervened in Utah in an all-out effort to block the affiliation of the Utah blind with the National Federation.
Kumpe, Kline, and Alsup—who are the other members of this unholy alliance? Mark down the name of H. A. Wood. It was Wood, who, as executive head of the North Carolina Commission for the Blind, in an effort to destroy and discredit the North Carolina Federation of the Blind perpetrated some months ago a breach of public trust and violation of confidentiality by releasing official summaries of case material concerning two former clients who are active in the state federation. The material thus exploited contained detailed information of a highly personal character, the secrecy of which is a sacred trust and canon of professional ethics. That the head of a state agency should have been driven to such tactics illuminates with frightening clarity the desperate determination of this man and others like him to use whatever weapons may come to hand in order to block the forward progress of our organized blind movement.
Kumpe, Kline, Alsup, and Wood—now add the name of Harry Simmons. Simmons is the head of the Florida Council for the Blind. He has systematically attacked the Florida Federation and the National Federation through circulars to stand operators and others, through agents who have appeared before public bodies to oppose the issuing of fundraising licenses, through destroying the job security of at least one Florida Federation leader, and through many other devious and less conspicuous actions.
Meanwhile, in Mississippi the agencies have, for the time being at least, effectively destroyed the possibility of a National Federation affiliate on the part of the blind of that state. The technique was simple. The foreman of the shop simply gave instructions to the workers on what to say and how to act when the National Federation's first vice president called an organizational meeting.
The workers in the sheltered shops and the operators of vending stands among those who receive aid and assistance from blind agencies, are particularly vulnerable to agency pressure. In Colorado, for example, some of the vending stand operators and shop workers were among the first to yield to agency blandishments and threats and to give aid and comfort to the Colorado agency for the blind in its attacks on the organized blind movement. In California the Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation, the licensing agency for the vending stand program, has managed to take over the association of blind vending stand operators and convert it into what can only be described as a "company union," the pliant tool of agency policies, the fawning suppliant for agency favors, and the obedient spokesman of the agency before the legislature. The independent members of the association were forced to withdraw and form a separate organization in which the true feelings of the independent blind might find expression.
Examine this letter sent to a blind worker in a lighthouse in another state by the executive director on behalf of the board of directors: "It is felt that for a long period you have, by act and utterance, both within and without the Lighthouse, displayed extreme disloyalty to the Lighthouse. You have, numerous times, been publicly critical of Lighthouse management, both generally and in a personal degree. … You have not at any time publicly acknowledged the many benefits afforded you as an employee in the Workshop. You have displayed an arrogance all out of proportion that has resulted in a disturbing of your fellow workers. …You have consistently failed to govern yourself in accordance with all the facts concerning your employment. This letter then is to inform you that from the date hereof you shall be considered on probation for a period of thirty days in consequence of your past actions and utterances. Any further evidence of disloyalty upon your part and a twisting of facts in your public utterances shall cause your summary dismissal from employment at the Lighthouse and bar you from future employment."
Vending stand programs and sheltered shops are therefore especially useful as instruments through which agencies can carry out attacks on the National Federation of the Blind and its affiliates. Through the right to select and dismiss workers and operators, through the exploitation of various elements in the control system of operating the stands, and through work assignments and wage determinations in the shops, extreme pressure can be exerted on these vulnerable individuals. That many of the blind respond to this pressure is not surprising. Toward these operators and workers I speak no word of blame. It hardly behooves those of us who are not in this situation, and not subject to these pressures, to judge the actions of those who are. That men with so few opportunities should grovel a little before power having the capacity and will to curtail or destroy their means of livelihood, if it is a weakness at all in our blind workers and operators, is a weakness common to most of mankind. We can only view it with understanding. On the other hand, my admiration and the admiration of all of us goes out to those vending stand operators and shop workers whose determination is unshakable to maintain their constitutional rights of liberty and independence against the imposition by the administering agencies of improper and immoral conditions to public aid. I could list many such dauntless blind men and women throughout the country, but I shall not further expose them by giving their names.
In the area of their right to negotiate as equals with the management of sheltered workshops and business enterprises, of vending stands and special employment programs, the problem is exactly that of organized labor: for the blind who labor in the workshops are not only unorganized but wholly deprived of the most elementary safeguards and privileges of organized labor. Wages in these shops are far below the cost of living and often beneath the standards of relief. They are also below requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act, from which the agencies have seen to it that workshops are exempt. Here the common virtues of labor organization are striking in their absence: no pension plans, no paid vacations, no security of employment, no systematic and free relations with management, no dignity, no status, no integrity, no independence—only shelter—the precarious shelter of patronage and paternalism, the shelter of the "company union."
These then are some of the interrelated activities carried out against the National Federation of the Blind by a few agency leaders. These directors of the rumor factory—these manufacturers and distributors of hostility toward the National Federation of the Blind—are not, it should be said again, joined in their attitudes and actions by all of the agencies. But they have, however, begun to draw into their orbit other agencies and administrators—most notable among whom are some officers of the American Foundation for the Blind. These AFB officials, who until the last year or two had followed a policy of cautious sniping at the Federation from the sidelines, have now joined and augmented the hue and cry against our organization through a more open stand of opposition and direct assault. They have circulated a written report about the Federation, a copy of which is in our possession, which misrepresents the scope, nature, and composition of our organization, indulges in half-truths and factual errors about the leaders of the Federation, and falsifies the record of our accomplishments. Some Foundation officers, moreover, have been assiduous in circulating the malicious work of others about the Federation. In so doing, these representatives of the Foundation can of course deny authorship but they cannot escape responsibility, for the carrier and hawker of malicious gossip—the rumor monger—is no less guilty than the rumor fabricator.
We have in our possession the reply of a Foundation officer to an inquiry from a recipient of our greeting cards. It enclosed one of those releases which the Better Business Bureau has so actively distributed and which contains a number of half-truths, derogatory innuendoes, and flatly false charges. The treatment of the post office review of our greeting card campaign in the New Outlook, which despite its efforts to attain professional status is still in large measure the house organ of the Foundation, can only be regarded as skillfully, and therefore deliberately, slanted, misleading, unfair, and prejudicial. The article does indeed contain the Federation's reply to charges against our fundraising organization—although no opportunity was given us to bring that reply up to date—and our statement appears only after a detailed and lurid recapitulation of scattered newspaper reports and vague local attacks upon unordered merchandising, much of which is in no way related to the Federation, together with a reproduction of the formal post office complaint against our fundraisers.
The role played by the agencies in our greeting card controversy with the post office has been an active one. Postal inspectors received derogatory information about the Federation from agency heads in Chicago, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, New York, and other places, not just by mail but by personal interview. Indeed, representatives of a number of agencies took the trouble to travel to Washington to present their various statements against the Federation orally to the head of the Fraud and Mailability Division of the Post Office Department.
Thus in the course of these agency activities, funds that have been appropriated or donated by the public to help the blind are now being diverted in this manner by these agencies to fight the National Federation of the Blind. Organizations that have been built up over years to disseminate good will toward the blind are now being used in this way by these people to disseminate ill will toward the NFB. Agencies that have been supported by the public in the past because they have promoted the education, economic independence, and welfare of the blind are now being used by these people to deny to the blind one of the first fruits of these advantages—self-determination and self-organization.
Meanwhile, in all of this campaign of venomous hostility and fury against the Federation, what has been the role of the federal government? How have those federal officials performed who are in charge of supervising the administration of programs created by Congress to aid the blind in their struggle for normal and self-supporting lives? Have they been alert to prevent the misuse of federal programs and money in this warfare upon the National Federation of the Blind? Has the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation discharged its duty to put a stop to the misappropriation of federal powers and money into the attempted destruction of the Federation and its affiliates? Have the officers of the government, sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, been zealous in protection of the constitutional rights of the blind to organize and speak for themselves through the National Federation of the Blind? Have they recognized the fact of our existence and the bona fides of our being by welcoming us as consultants and soliciting our advice in matters concerning the blind?
True, Secretary Folsom determined that Wood's breach of confidentiality in North Carolina was "not proper." That, however, was a mere slap on the wrist considering the gravity of the offense; and it is open to question whether even this grudging action would have been taken if the Secretary's sense of duty had not been prodded by the active interest of the United States senators from that state. Moreover, since that time the Director of the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation has taken steps to minimize and curtail the scope and significance of the Secretary's action. She has circulated a letter to state agencies declaring that some persons got the wrong impression if they thought the Secretary had issued a rebuke to Wood for his attack upon a blind organization through the breach of confidentiality of personal data in the rehabilitation files. To stand idly by and watch without interference a course of conduct you have the power and duty to prevent is either to neglect your duty or to approve the conduct. In this case, however, we are not forced back upon the inference from silence and inactivity. In this case express approval has been given. In the letter circulated to state agencies the federal rehabilitation director asserted flatly that "State agencies are free to develop their own views with respect to the organization of blind persons in their own interest." In its context this is a clear signal to go ahead: a green light to efforts such as that in North Carolina to obstruct and undermine in any way possible the self-organizing efforts of the blind in the National Federation of the Blind and its affiliates.
Far from restraining the state agencies in their improper propensities, the federal officials thus announce that they are giving them a free hand. Far from withholding their approval they have in effect become active collaborationists. Far from forbidding the improper use of federal power and money, they proclaim the right of the agencies to pursue their present course. Far from protecting the constitutional rights of the blind, they connive at their invasion. Being themselves an agency, they have concluded that kinship is stronger than human and constitutional obligation.
The attacks that I have cited are not the only ones that have been made upon the organized blind of the National Federation and upon their right of free association. They are merely the most recent and conspicuous episodes in a lengthening chain of closely linked events. If the campaign against us succeeds, the result will be the extinction of whatever promise we have seen created of self-expression, self-direction, and self-respect for the blind of America—and the indefinite deferment of our emerging hopes of ultimate equality and integration into normal society.
But these attacks will not succeed. We shall take our case to the highest court in the land, the court of public opinion, as well as to the Congress and the legislatures of the states. We shall broadcast by every method open to us the full extent of this assault upon the organized blind of the National Federation by those public servants whose sole function should be to aid the independence and advancement of the blind.
The distinguished Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, has already introduced a bill, S. 2411, to protect the right of the blind to self-expression through organizations of the blind. The bill contains two simple requirements: It requires the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare to the fullest extent practicable to consult and advise with authorized representatives of organizations of the blind in the formulation, administration, and execution of programs for the aid and rehabilitation of the blind. It forbids agencies administering blind programs supported by federal funds to exert official influence against the right of the blind to join organizations of the blind and requires the secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare to enforce this prohibition. In a statement accompanying the introduction of this bill, Senator Kennedy emphasized that the organizations of the blind "provide to our blind citizens the opportunity for collective self-expression. …" "It is important," he said, "that these views be expressed freely and without interference. It is important that these views be heard and considered by persons charged with responsibility for determining and carrying out our programs for the blind."
The bill is based upon the premise that we are citizens now; that our citizenship is not deferred until some far-distant future date; that the professionals have not now any problem of interpretation of the blind to the public because the blind are now organized and are now speaking for themselves. The National Federation of the Blind is not an organization speaking for the blind—it is the blind speaking for themselves.