Braille Monitor                                                 June 2012

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Featured Book from the tenBroek Library

From the Editor: With some regularity we spotlight books in the tenBroek Library. Here is Librarian Ed Morman's review of a book in our collection:

Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, by Rick Wartzman, New York: Public Affairs, 2008

For decades the NFB has been fighting for the rights of blind workers and, indeed, all disabled workers. We have led the struggle against discrimination in hiring; we have encouraged the development and use of access technology; and, of course, we have never forgotten the shame of a “fair labor standards” law that permits employers to pay disabled workers less than the minimum wage set for others. We must remember, though, that employers of disabled workers were not the only ones exempted from the minimum wage requirements of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. The most notoriously excluded group, in fact, was farm laborers. In the thirties there was no disability rights movement, and for that matter the organized blind existed only as an assortment of state groups, many of which were no more than social clubs. This was the time when the agencies and sheltered shops were successfully claiming to speak for the disabled, so it should come as no surprise that the U.S. Congress ignored the need of disabled people for good jobs at a decent wage.

On the other hand the labor movement was active and militant throughout the country, including among migrant farm workers. Nowadays, and for most of the past fifty years, the common image of a migrant worker is Hispanic—whether a U.S. citizen, legal immigrant, or undocumented alien. In the 1930s, though, at least in California, white migrants from the dust bowl of Oklahoma, Arkansas, and other Southern and Great Plains states comprised the bulk of the migrant work force. The term “Okie” was derisively applied to these hard-working, migratory people who picked the fruits and vegetables that landed on the tables of many Americans, and it was the Okies whom the unions tried to organize during the thirties.  It wasn’t until the 1960s that a largely Hispanic movement succeeded in creating the United Farm Workers of America and winning the minimum wage for agricultural laborers.

Shortly before the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, the novelist John Steinbeck toured the fields and migrant camps of California. In The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, Steinbeck painted a sympathetic but polarizing picture of the life of the migrants, and controversy about the book spread around the country. Obscene in the Extreme is devoted to one incident brought on by Steinbeck’s novel: the action of the Kern County Board of Supervisors on August 21, 1939, banning The Grapes of Wrath from the county’s public libraries.

Kern County is the southernmost county in California’s Central Valley. Blessed with the right climate and fertile soil, and the beneficiary of an extensive irrigation system, Kern County was (and is still) one of the most important agricultural regions in America. Owners of big farms and other leading citizens resented Steinbeck’s assertions about the migrants’ living and working conditions, and it was not hard to get the Board of Supervisors to act as it did.

The ban was a tempest in a teapot, since copies of the book could still be purchased, and the ban was rescinded in less than two years. Nonetheless, the story of the ban provided author Rick Wartzman the opportunity to write about the broader context: the development of Central Valley agriculture; the conditions of agricultural labor in California; the efforts of unions to organize the migrants; the civil liberty and free speech issues; and the general political climate of the United States on the eve of its entry into World War II.

All very interesting, you might say, but what does this book have to do with blindness, and why is it in the tenBroek Library collection? This is a good question, and we have a good answer.

One of the recurring characters in Wartzman’s narrative is Raymond Henderson, a blind lawyer whom Jacobus tenBroek hired to be the NFB’s executive director soon after the Federation was founded. Like Newel Perry a few years earlier and Jacobus tenBroek some years later, Henderson attended the California School for the Blind and subsequently graduated from the University of California in Berkeley. Unable to get a teaching job in a public school, he worked at a school for the blind for a few years before studying law and passing the bar exam. He later settled in Bakersfield, county seat of Kern County, where he supported his pro bono civil liberties and labor work by taking lucrative but less interesting cases such as defending a bootlegger or arguing for one side in a dispute over oil royalties.

Henderson was a generation older than tenBroek and unfortunately died at the age of sixty-five in 1945, but for a few years he was a key figure nursing the Federation during its infancy.  It is significant that such an important early leader of the NFB was a labor advocate and civil liberties activist for much of his prior career.  As Rick Wartzman put it in an interview:

[M]y favorite character is Raymond Henderson—the blind ACLU lawyer who battled the book ban. He was an incredibly smart, courageous soul who spent his whole life fighting for the little guy. His letters (which I found at the National Federation of the Blind, where he later served as executive director) are beautifully written and a lot of fun to read.

Henderson shows up in Obscene in the Extreme in several places, and much of what Wartzman learned about Henderson was indeed from letters found in the Jacobus tenBroek Papers, right here at the Jernigan Institute. 

Wartzman relates the story of how, twelve years before Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath, Henderson had represented striking miners in Colorado.  Showing the same spirit as Federationists later displayed by refusing to change their seats on airplanes, Henderson refused to give up his efforts to free strikers who were being held in jail without charges.  He wrote to a friend:

I was threatened with arrest, having my passport revoked, and a beating.  In fact, I had a perfectly beautiful quarrel with the state police, all to myself.  It was the best quarrel I have had for many a long day . . . .  Between me and these gentlemen, a most cordial hatred has arisen.

In another case from the 1920s, of a union member convicted of “criminal syndicalism,” Henderson had the opportunity to argue an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Although he lost the case, he gained fame (or notoriety) as the blind lawyer who used Braille notes in a presentation to the highest court in the land.

In 1935 Henderson handled the appeal of several members of the Communist Party convicted of conspiracy because of their involvement in efforts to organize farm laborers, and in 1938—just as Steinbeck was researching and writing his novel—Henderson was defending striking agricultural workers, whose living and working conditions would be documented in The Grapes of Wrath.

Raymond Henderson Wartzman also writes about the so-called “anti-Okie law,” an effort to minimize the need for poor relief in California during the Depression, that made it a crime to bring destitute persons into the state.  Henderson was among the lawyers who challenged this act, a stance that may well have influenced Jacobus tenBroek.  Years later tenBroek became chair of the California Social Welfare Board and argued against state residency requirements for welfare recipients.

But back to the main subject of Wartzman’s book.  Two days after the supervisors enacted the ban on The Grapes of Wrath, Henderson represented the American Civil Liberties Union in its first attempt to get the novel back on the shelves of the county’s libraries.  As it happened, on the very same day the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression pact.  Henderson—an avowed leftist who was willing to work with Communists, but never was one himself—denounced the action of the supervisors as akin to “what they do over in Italy and Germany and Russia and Japan.”

Few people are still alive who can remember the Great Depression as adults.  Since then the trade union movement has grown and subsequently shrunk.  The demographics of agricultural labor have changed; farm workers are protected by the minimum wage, and, while some of them are union members, their living and working conditions are still not good, and the undocumented among them are subject to vilification.

The disabled are still not guaranteed a minimum wage.  NFB efforts in the 1970s to organize blind sheltered shop workers have led to improved conditions in many places, but there is still no independent voice—a union—for disabled workshop employees.

What has definitely improved since the time of Raymond Henderson and John Steinbeck?  For the blind—and for all disabled workers—the work of Henderson, tenBroek, and other early leaders of the organized blind has paid off.  The National Federation of the Blind in 2012 is, as its early leaders promised, “the blind speaking for themselves.”  And speaking as a unified movement, stronger than ever, the blind in America will continue to fight and win battles such as the one for the minimum wage for the disabled.

Unfortunately, we have been unable to locate a source for an accessible version of Obscene in the Extreme.  We intend, however, to acquire—or produce—a digital copy of the book, which we will make available to eligible readers through our catalog, THE BLIND CAT. <http://webopac.infovisionsoftware.com/nfb/>

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