by Ed McDonald
From the Editor: Ed McDonald is a past president of the National Federation of the Blind of West Virginia and a former member of the National Federation of the Blind board of directors. He is kind, thoughtful, and reflective. He has been a keen observer of the times in which he has lived, remembering his reactions as a child to historic events and weighing them now as an adult.
In January of 2006 the Braille Monitor printed remarks Ed had made a year earlier for a Martin Luther King Day observance. The following remarks are different enough that we think readers will benefit from reading them. They were made on the day before the first black president was inaugurated in the United States; and, given this month’s focus on activism, speaking about the truth of our lives to those in power, and the inauguration of our forty-fourth president for a second term, they seem quite appropriate to appear in this issue.
Fellow Federationists: Martin Luther King Day has always been a special day for Karen and me. Each year I do a radio show featuring music that I hope reflects the message of Dr. King. This year Karen sang with and accompanied a community choir which presented a special program for the occasion. In addition, on Martin Luther King Day I am always reminded of how much we as Federationists share with all of those who have struggled for civil rights.
With that in mind I thought I would share with you some remarks I presented four years ago at another MLK Day program in our community. It was the eve of President Obama's first inauguration, so perhaps that gives the remarks a bit more relevance today. Some of you may have read them before, and I apologize if they become long and boring. Nevertheless—at the risk of personal grandstanding—I hope a few of you may find in them some renewed reasons to celebrate Martin Luther King Day.
Tri-Towns Ministerial Association
Today is the day we observe a national holiday to celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. I am sure that for some the occasion may be little more than a day off from work or school, but for many—including those of us who are gathered here this evening—it's a significant occasion. This year it's especially significant because four score years have passed since Dr. King was born. Adding to the significance is the fact that tomorrow we will experience a landmark event in the fulfillment of the dream that we often associate with Dr. King.
Today, no doubt, we have celebrated this day in many different ways. Perhaps the media have reminded us of the basic facts of Dr. King's life, and we might even have heard a few seconds of that magic voice talking about his dream. Many of us will sing songs and say prayers together, and a few of us will stand up and make speeches that try to give some meaning and perspective to the occasion.
I won't even pretend to offer new insights or understandings about Dr. King, his life, or the spirit of the holiday. I can only share with you a few personal thoughts about how the principles that he talked about and lived by make sense to me as a member of a social minority.
Unlike Dr. King, I am not African American, so I really don't know how it feels to be rejected for a job; to be denied the opportunity to live in the home of my choice; to be taunted, scorned, feared, or hated because of the color of my skin. However, as a blind person I do know something about what it's like to be regarded as virtually helpless; to be denied educational opportunities; or to be turned down for jobs that I know I'm qualified to do, simply because I happen not to see.
Just like the people Dr. King inspired to take a firm stand for freedom and human dignity, I too am a member of a minority group within American society—a minority whose members have often been denied the rights of first-class citizenship, not because we are inferior, but simply because of a personal characteristic over which we have no control.
With that in mind it has become increasingly clear to me over the past four decades that what Dr. King had to say, the principles that he fought for, and the strategies he used to bring about change were as relevant to me as they were to those who marched in Montgomery or Selma. But I must admit that's not something I have always understood.
When Martin Luther King was killed in April of 1968, I was a high school senior preparing to graduate from the West Virginia School for the Blind. Like the rest of America, I listened to the news accounts of the assassination and its aftermath. But, having grown up in what I realize now was a rather racist family environment, I really didn't feel as though the death of this black leader—I may have even regarded him as a troublemaker—had any real impact on me.
A few months later I went off to college and discovered people my own age embracing the civil rights movement, protesting the Vietnam War, and expressing all sorts of other radical ideas that sounded foreign to me. Some of my most fundamental values and beliefs were being challenged by new ideas. In the midst of all of this I was invited to a meeting of a group called the National Federation of the Blind—men and women who were trying to create an organization of blind college students in West Virginia. Until then I didn't know there was any kind of organization of blind people and really didn't know why there should be, but they persuaded me to become secretary of this new student division, and thus began my lifelong involvement in the organized blind movement.
The following summer I attended the state convention of the National Federation of the Blind. Incidentally, that was forty years ago this summer, and I haven't missed a convention since. The featured speaker was the national president of the Federation, a man named Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. I didn't understand it all right away, but that convention introduced me to a man who was intelligent, articulate, successful, and blind. As I read more of his essays and listened to more of his recorded speeches, I realized that Dr. Jernigan's role in the lives of blind people was a lot like that of Dr. King in the lives of African Americans. I learned from Dr. Jernigan that the real issues we faced as blind people had little to do with our physical lack of eyesight and a lot to do with the myths, misunderstandings, and prejudices about blindness and blind people that have existed for centuries. I learned from Dr. Jernigan that, if we as blind people wanted to break down the barriers that keep us from first-class citizenship, we needed to join together and do what we could to change public attitudes about blindness. Dr. Jernigan helped us understand how much we had in common with the civil rights movement in which African Americans were most prominent, and he encouraged us to respect ourselves and not be afraid to stand up for the things we believed in.
That sounds a lot like Dr. King, doesn't it? Like Dr. Jernigan, Dr. King understood and articulated the barriers that relegated most African Americans to something less than first-class citizenship, and he was able to inspire large numbers of people to join together to destroy those barriers forever.
I am sure that, as a result of Dr. King's life, many other black Americans were inspired to remain involved throughout their lives in the struggle for justice and equality for themselves and their brothers and sisters. In much the same way Dr. Jernigan's message has inspired me to stay involved for the past four decades in an organization that remains dedicated—as we often say—to changing what it means to be blind. As a result I have written resolutions and press releases; carried banners and picket signs; raised money and raised cane, so to speak; chaired meetings and conventions; and met with lawmakers in Charleston and Washington as a member of the National Federation of the Blind. Twenty-five years after he spoke at my first convention, Dr. Jernigan asked me to serve on the Federation's national board of directors, and it was a privilege for me to do so for three years.
The issues and problems, the solutions and strategies, the tactics and of course even the leadership of the organized blind have evolved over those four decades, but the basic purpose of the movement remains the same—security, equality, and opportunity for all blind Americans. Surely the experience of black Americans over those same forty years has been very much the same.
Public education is just one example of an area in which black people and blind people have shared a similar experience. Until 1954 segregated education was the norm for African Americans, and we know that segregated schools usually meant an inferior education for a variety of reasons. Thus integration into the educational mainstream offered African Americans a better chance of becoming integrated into the social and political mainstream as well. But the court decisions outlawing segregated schools were not absolute victories. African Americans are still working hard to ensure equal treatment and equal opportunity in the nation's education system, and I understand further that the elimination of all black schools may have contributed to the erosion of some of the solidarity that unified and strengthened the African American community. So it has become necessary to find new ways to nurture that sense of community.
Similarly, until the early 1970s, segregated institutions were the norm for the education of blind children—state-run residential schools, where blind kids lived in dormitories, often separated from their families for months at a time. The education offered by these institutions was based largely on the use of Braille as the means of reading and writing, and without them most blind people would have remained illiterate and otherwise uneducated. Both my wife Karen and I attended such a school, and, if we hadn't done so, the two of us would never have met. So I have no real complaints about my segregated education. It is true, however, that these schools for the blind were, simply because of their relatively small size, unable to offer the breadth and diversity of educational opportunities that most kids would experience in the public school mainstream. Thus it was a major step forward as more and more blind children were integrated into the public school system, but I believe this trend has also contributed to the loss of some sense of community. What's more, since Braille in the public schools is the exception rather than the rule, the rate of Braille literacy among blind children has actually declined over the past three decades.
This year of 2009 is the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille, the young Frenchman who invented the system of reading and writing that I'm using right now. As part of the bicentennial celebration, we're not just telling the story of our hero, Louis Braille, but we're launching a long-term campaign to make sure blind people of all ages are not denied the opportunity to learn to read and write. This is of course yet another example of a group of people identifying a real problem and then working together to solve it.
So what's the point of talking about these parallels and commonalities between black people and blind people? Well, in many ways it seems we live in a time when division and polarization have come to dominate our society. However, as a blind person, taking time to recognize the many common experiences that I share with my African American brothers and sisters—not to mention my two African American step-sons—reminds me that more things unite us than divide us. What's more, I know that black people and blind people are not the only two minorities that share these common experiences. Whether we face injustice resulting from race, ethnicity, disability, gender, or any other characteristic, we can all gain knowledge, understanding, wisdom, strength, courage, and commitment from the words and the example of Dr. Martin Luther King. His message was simple yet universal, but the business of really believing it, understanding it, and living it is not always easy.
In a few minutes we'll join together and sing a song that thousands, indeed millions of people have sung together over the years in their struggle for freedom and human dignity. In the words of that song we find the fundamental truths that guided Dr. King and that continue to guide and inspire all of us who really care about matters of justice, equality, and opportunity. We shall organize; we'll walk hand in hand; we're not afraid; and someday we will all be free because deep in our hearts we really do believe that we shall overcome. It's important for us to sing these words together. The more we repeat them, the more we know they're true.
I remember, when I first heard Dr. Jernigan say that it was respectable to be blind, that with proper training and opportunity blind people could compete on terms of equality with sighted people, and that we really could achieve first-class citizenship, his words made more sense than anything I had ever heard before about blindness; but deep in my heart I'm not sure I really believed it. I had to hear and say those words over and over again, and with time I have come to believe them at a much deeper level. Even after forty years I'm still learning and understanding more and more about what it means and, for that matter what it doesn't mean, to be blind. And each of us can have a similar experience.
Those who marched with Dr. King did not do it because they took some pleasure in fighting a losing battle. Similarly my commitment to the organized blind movement has not been a forty-year walk through the wilderness with no hope of reaching the Promised Land. Like Dr. Jernigan and Dr. King, I know and you know deep in our hearts that we can and we shall overcome.
Dr. King gave us not only a dream to believe in but also the tools to help make it come true. During recent years we've come through some hard times in pursuit of that dream, but the historic event that the entire nation will experience tomorrow should remind us that the dream is still very much alive. Of course we all know that the inauguration of a black man as president of the United States will not bring about a sudden and immediate solution to all of our problems. Nevertheless it should be for every one of us an occasion for hope, inspiration, and a renewed commitment to pursue and fulfill the dream.
Thank you for the opportunity to share this evening with you. As Dr. Jernigan often said at the close of a speech, and I know Dr. King would agree: "Come, join me on the barricades, and we will make it come true!"