by Anna Kresmer
From the Editor: Anna Kresmer is one of the most valuable resources we have in the Jacobus tenBroek Library. She understands our history, embraces our philosophy, and can answer almost any question asked of her. She can offer her opinion and then back it up with one or more documents. After almost a decade at her work, she was surprised when she had what appeared to be a simple question that sent her back to the stacks to answer. Here is what she says:
After nine years working with the archives of the National Federation of the Blind, it is not often these days that a reference question about Federation history truly stumps me. But this is exactly what happened recently. I received a request from a member in our Massachusetts affiliate which asked how the pledge that Federationists recite at every chapter meeting, state convention, and national convention was originally created. Like the member, I could not find any reference to the adoption of the pledge online in our literature or publications, including our recent seventy-fifth anniversary history book. However, when I still could not find reference to the pledge in both the Jacobus tenBroek Collection and the NFB Institutional Records, I knew it was time to consult with a real expert on the subject of NFB history. I speak, of course, of none other than Dr. Marc Maurer. Needless to say, he put me on the right path immediately.
The pledge that we all know and use today came about during the 1974 NFB National Convention in Chicago. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan first spoke about the idea of a formal pledge to show one’s support for the organization during his Presidential Report. In those days, the report was delivered in a more off-the-cuff manner using only notes, but thankfully it was transcribed and later printed in full in the September 1974 Braille Monitor. Here is how Dr. Jernigan addressed the Convention:
Ever since 1971, we've been on a sharply ascending curve organizationally—in power, in prestige, and, I think, in responsibility. We must exercise with care the very considerable power inherent in an organization as large and as broadly representative as we are. We must also, however, recognize that there are dangers any time a group makes as many waves as we have; we can expect to be subjects of vicious counter-attacks. Now, I think that it is in that context that we must view our situation. During the American Revolution, you know, the leaders said: "We pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." Well, in retrospect that sounds like rhetoric. But think about it; it wasn't just rhetoric. It meant what it said… If you take us as a group, blind people in this country, we have pledged our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor—because although they are not going to come out and kill us in the usual sense of that word, life is going to be a different kind of life, and for some blind persons, not really worth the living if this movement does not succeed. And furthermore, [applause] as to fortune, although some of us as individuals may do well financially, the blind as a class can expect very little except the same old custody and care, shelter and pity, and contempt which we have always received if we don't succeed in this movement. And as to our honors, already there are people who try to make us appear to be less than human by what they've said and done and how they felt… it is my duty not to hesitate, not to count the cost personally, it is my duty to lead where I ought to lead, stand out on the cutting edge and be willing to take the risk and not count what it may do to me as a person, even if it costs me my job, if it costs my reputation, costs whatever money I have— whatever it costs, it is for me to be prepared to give it. Otherwise I am not fit to lead the movement. But, it is up to you as members to do all you can to make that job successful. It is up to you as members of this movement to be willing to give as much as you can in the way of your time, your effort, your money, your dedication, and your commitment. If you are not willing to do that, you are not fit to be members of the movement. [Applause] In other words, those who believe that the primary purpose of this movement is a nice little game, or a social tete-a-tete, would do better to go elsewhere; they will find it more fun. But those of us who intend to see this thing through and to make lives better for blind people in this country and to improve our own status in the world will stay to the end and we will prevail.
That year Dr. Jernigan also hosted a special presidential reception during the convention with a receiving line that, according to the Braille Monitor, “included not only President and Mrs. Kenneth Jernigan, but all present, incoming, and outgoing officers and their respective spouses of the whole board of directors; NFB staff members; and the top officers of the Illinois Federation of the Blind.” Each member who walked through that receiving line received an official NFB membership card, which, when signed, certified that that person was a member in good standing of the National Federation of the Blind. On the back of these membership cards were the words, printed for the first time, which every Federationist today knows:
I pledge to participate actively in the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind to achieve equality, opportunity, and security for the blind; to support the policies and programs of the Federation; and to abide by its constitution.