Braille Monitor                  August/September 2021

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Reflection, Revolution, and Race: A Growing Understanding within the Organized Blind Movement

by Mark A. Riccobono

"When day comes, we ask ourselves where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.
And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken,
but simply unfinished."

These words, spoken by the young Black poet Amanda Gorman earlier this year, framed a moment of reflection for our nation. Tonight, we, as blind people organized in a civil rights movement, come to our own moment of reflection. We cannot remove ourselves from the nation in which we live. We cannot deny the influence of the pressures, perspectives, barriers, and inequities of that nation—a nation that is not broken but simply unfinished.

We can find hope, opportunity, and safety in knowing that we have created something meaningful within our nation. We have started by building a movement where we can, as blind Americans, work together on an equal basis for change. Our movement, like our nation, is not broken, but it is unfinished. Our movement, like our nation, is diverse, complex, and not unlimited in resources. Our movement, like our nation, has not always gotten it right. However, we choose to come together in this organization to raise up all blind people in society. We choose this organization because we believe that the blind have the right and the responsibility to speak and act for ourselves. We stay with this organization because, although it may be unfinished, we recognize that here we have the power to get more done together. We are Americans; we are citizens of the world; we are striving to achieve our hopes and dreams; we are committed to the process of learning and growing; we are committed to independence and giving back; and we happen to be blind. We are the National Federation of the Blind.

“We know who we are, and we will never go back.” This simple yet powerful line first appeared in a Federation convention banquet speech delivered by Kenneth Jernigan in 1975. Dr. Jernigan had been elected to the office of President after the death of Jacobus tenBroek in 1968. Dr. tenBroek was a brilliant scholar of the United States Constitution, a strong organizer of blind people, and a tireless advocate. He founded our Federation; served as its first long-term President; and gave it personality, direction, and wise insight for more than a quarter century. In 1940 he brought blind people from seven states together to form the beginnings of what would become the most powerful vehicle for collective action by the blind. At that time, we did not know who we were. Coming to understand ourselves as blind people and our collective power and identity as a group was our first challenge.

Centuries of myths and misconceptions resulted in our nation institutionalizing low expectations into schools and agencies for the blind. As our organized blind movement was built, we discovered our potential, and we challenged the artificial limits placed on us by the agencies. Those institutions pushed back on the right of the blind to organize in an attempt to protect myth and tradition over independence and self-sufficiency. Dr. Jernigan’s rally call in his 1975 speech, “Blindness: Is the Public Against Us,” was a pivot point solidifying the truth that the organized blind movement was here to stay and that blind people would forever determine our own future. This truth grew in imaginative and powerful ways during the next generation of the movement led by Marc Maurer—our leader and mentor for nearly three decades. This truth fuels the lives we live and the march we share today.

Just as the 1975 Convention did for Dr. Jernigan, tonight marks the end of my seventh year leading this movement—an honor and challenge unlike any other in my life. This evening, in reflecting, I find myself asking these questions: Do we still know who we are? Is it inevitable that we will never go back? And what is most essential to our future?

Let’s examine who we are. We are first and foremost blind people. Our structure as an organization requires the majority of our members and our elected leaders to be blind (including 100 percent of our national board). Upwards of 90 percent of our overall nationwide membership is composed of blind people, and we have no expectation that this will or should change. More than that, we come from every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Our members represent the full range of diverse characteristics including race, creed, color, religion, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, national origin, citizenship, marital status, age, genetic information, disability, and any other characteristics or intersectionality of characteristics you might find in our nation. While we now have a clear and well-established, open, national membership policy that applies throughout all levels of our organization, it took real effort to get here. And we recognize that where we are today is not where we strive to be tomorrow.

While we celebrate the tremendous achievements of our movement, we must also make honest reflections about the costs and missed opportunities of progress. We must learn from our past if we are truly to never go back. Today we are not prepared to submit to the low expectations of the agencies for the blind, nor are we prepared to be led by the outdated notions of the society around us. This space, our movement, must reflect the high expectations we demand from society. This requires consistent progress toward building a safe, supportive, empowering, and enriching vehicle for collective action by all blind people. This progress is destined to remain unfinished if we fail to understand our past in planning for our future. Thus, a more meaningful charge for today may be: We know who we are, and we will never go back; together we march forward and learn from our past.

Although we say with truth and conviction that our focus is the concerns of blind people, other challenging social issues have always complicated our unity in this movement. One persistent concern to consider is our nation’s conflicted struggle with inequality based upon race. Our previous organizational responses to these issues are not well known and, therefore, we should consider what we might learn from our past.

From our earliest days, our national leaders worked to promote the principle that the Federation, as a democratic representative movement, should strive to welcome and rely on the participation of all blind people irrespective of their other characteristics. This expectation was dramatically different from what was found elsewhere in our society. However, we, as a class of blind people, had not yet defined who we were. Those who believed in their heart that blindness was not the characteristic that defined them were few compared to those blind people who felt safe and satisfied settling for the social outlets of clubs for the blind and the limited work provided by workshops for the blind. Combine that with the complexity of social issues experienced in our nation after the Great Depression, the impacts of World War II, and a slowly growing consciousness of race inequality, and it is a wonder that the Federation accomplished as much as it did in its first two decades.

Starting with only seven states, our early leaders attempted to build relationships with local organizations of blind people in order to establish affiliated groups in all corners of the nation. In 1951 the National Convention changed the Federation’s constitution to prioritize having only one affiliate in each state. Our leaders recognized that competing organizations at the local level would divide the interests of the blind in ways that hurt all of us. In 1955 our National Convention, assembled in Omaha, Nebraska, went further by formalizing critical membership principles into a mandatory Code of Affiliate Standards. The establishment of these national standards proved much easier than implementing them in local communities.

During the same time, our nation was facing shifting expectations regarding race inequality. Emotions ran high after the United States Supreme Court ruling in the Brown vs. Board of Education case of 1954. Dr. tenBroek’s constitutional expertise on the Fourteenth Amendment was sought by the NAACP’s counsel, Thurgood Marshall, in August 1953, in preparation for arguing that landmark case. It is hard to know how much Dr. tenBroek anticipated the impact America’s racial tensions would have on the organized blind movement, but establishing racial equality among the Federation’s membership would take significant effort by the Federation’s leadership.

In 1957 our convention was to be held in New Orleans, Louisiana. The convention had been scheduled prior to the 1956 Louisiana legislative session, which had reacted to the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1954 by placing new limits on the rights of Louisiana’s Black citizens. One of the state’s new laws made it impossible for Black and White Federationists to meet together in the planned convention hotel. In early 1957 the affiliate informed the national leadership of the new development and negotiations began immediately with the hotel. Dr. tenBroek was prepared to move the convention to another state, even though six months was not adequate time to reconfigure the convention arrangements. The convention stayed in New Orleans, but in order to allow all Federation members to participate on an equal basis, we rented a hall outside of the hotel for our meetings and banquet.

Shortly after that convention, a Federation member sent a letter describing a call he received from the president of the Louisiana affiliate. The letter was sent to Dr. Jernigan, who had already become a respected leader in the movement. Please note the letter is written in the language of the time, and I have not changed it. Judge this excerpt for yourself:

[He] …called me Monday afternoon and told me that a colored fellow had just phoned him regarding forming an organization of the colored blind in the state. It seems that a group of colored people attending the convention had spoken with Dr. tenBroek, and he (Dr. tenBroek) had urged them to organize and join the NFB. Now, if this information comes to me straight; I am very much surprised, in fact, amazed.

Granted, it is most unfortunate that the colored of the south–the colored blind–are not organized. That is to say, we could use their support, but being familiar with the feeling of the races in the south, you know there are very few people who feel this way. Add to this our state law concerning the mixing of the races and you come up with an impossible situation. However, if there were no such law, at the present time it would be impossible to have colored and white in the same organization because of the strong popular feeling. As I said, this is regrettable, but true.

The letter is a brutally honest reflection on the circumstances. Was that who we were? Well, like our nation, the answer is complicated. Our national leadership encouraged organizing and integrating throughout the nation under the principle of wanting to represent all blind people; but in local communities, we reflected the painful reality of the time. Our structure was fragile, and many local organizations were not tightly bonded to the movement.

Inspired by their experience at the 1957 Convention, the Black blind people of New Orleans began rallying around the Federation’s mission. In the fall they wrote to Dr. tenBroek seeking recognition as a Federation chapter. Due to the Federation’s one affiliate policy, their application was redirected to the existing Louisiana affiliate for consideration. Throughout 1958 it became clear that our Louisiana affiliate did not wish to allow these blind people to join, due only to the color of their skin. Yet a Black blind movement arose in New Orleans.

On May 31, 1958, Mr. Elliott Ralrine, president of the newly formed New Orleans Chapter of the Adult Blind wrote to Dr. tenBroek. Mr. Ralrine noted that, despite the denial of membership from the Louisiana affiliate, Black blind men and women had organized, applied for recognition by the state of Louisiana as a nonprofit, and sought to attend the 1958 National Convention in Boston with the goal of being accepted into Federation membership. Dr. tenBroek responded with a warm welcome for their participation in the convention and a tone of concern about the resistance they had faced.

Immediately following the 1958 Convention, the two exchanged letters that crossed in the mail. Notably, Mr. Ralrine’s letter dated July 14 maintains a clear hopefulness, determined purpose, and complete trust in Dr. tenBroek. He closed with this powerful statement:

Mr. President, since it is impossible at the present time to integrate with the State federation of the blind, we are going to press forward and continually operate in the State independently until some provisions of law are made in the constitution of the national federation which would allow us to become a member of the national. We have just as many blind in this State as the White and we can accumulate just as much finance, if not more. And we will prove it to you at the next convention. …We are thanking you in advance and are asking you and the national body to work with us in attaining our goal.

Dr. tenBroek’s letter of July 17, 1958, appears to have two equal purposes: preserve the history of the actions taken at the convention and document the disappointment of all involved. The Federation’s executive committee agonized over the membership application of the New Orleans group but ultimately declined the application due to the one-affiliate policy. Dr. tenBroek tried to share a glimmer of hope in a hard situation by saying, “Perhaps when tensions diminish in Louisiana, as we all hope they soon will, it will be possible for you to come into relationship with our affiliate in that state and thus to become a full-fledged part of the National Federation of the Blind.”

Progress denied or progress made? Was this outrageous discrimination or incremental advancement of equality within a diverse nationwide movement? Our leaders at the time believed they were forging a path forward, keeping us together, and hopefully raising expectations at the local level. The challenge was, and continues to be, to unify and advance our organization, one which includes blind people with many diverse perspectives and characteristics. We know who we are, and we will never go back; together we march forward and learn from our past.

The work to integrate and unify blind people across the Federation continued for many years to come. In November 1959, the Federation’s executive committee met in St. Louis. The minutes from the meeting indicate that the intersection of race and the organized blind movement was a significant topic of conversation. The result was the adoption of a number of important policy proposals for consideration by the 1960 National Convention in Miami, Florida. This was an important pivot point in our effort to unify the affiliates. The 1960 Convention suspended our affiliates in Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and South Dakota for activities destructive to the character and objectives of the Federation. The lack of open membership policies was a primary factor in the suspensions.

The convention also adopted an executive committee proposal to modify the Federation’s constitution to include an “at-large membership” category. The Braille Monitor preserves the history of this action as, “primarily to afford membership in the NFB to persons denied membership in the affiliates of some southern states on grounds of race.” The article notes that the voice vote was supported by both northern and southern states. Open membership is now our standard, so we do not often discuss at-large national membership. However, we should not forget the significance of its development as a strategy to welcome into the Federation family blind people previously barred from membership.

In October 1960, the suspended Louisiana affiliate proclaimed that it was disassociating itself from the Federation rather than conforming to the standards. This was just one story in the lead-up to the height of the internal struggles in the Federation, culminating in the 1961 National Convention permanently suspending four affiliates and the dramatic resignation of Dr. tenBroek. The historical record shows that America’s struggle with race influenced the Federation’s own struggle for an organizational identity. What were the lasting impacts of these setbacks on our Black blind family members? It is hard to quantify, but in Louisiana we would not have a functioning affiliate again until 1972. We know from the nation we live in that the imbalance of equality takes time and real, thoughtful work to overcome. We know who we are, and we will never go back; together we march forward and learn from our past.

The rebuilding and strengthening of the Federation in the 1960s created opportunities for Black members to participate more fully and to seek leadership in the movement. This is a credit to the commitment of those Black blind individuals and their recognition of the value of the organized blind movement. Much work remained to strengthen and unify our national movement through the development of action-oriented affiliates that welcomed all blind people—work that continues and remains unfinished today.

Consider, for example, the work done within our Maryland affiliate, which was restored to good standing in the Federation in 1961. By 1965 the affiliate consisted of a group of sixty-four White blind people from Baltimore known as the Maryland Council of the Blind. Neither representative of the state of Maryland nor of the diversity of blind people of the state, the organization did not reflect the open representative membership principles we valued. In July 1965, a Black Federation chapter president from Pennsylvania named Ned Graham moved to Baltimore to get married. This fateful event helped spark a revolution in our local movement and resulted in the building of one of our leading affiliates.

When Mr. Graham sought membership in the Maryland Council, he found a group that was disorganized, isolated, and impossible to join. He noted that many existing members already supported some form of reorganization. He also found ten other Black blind people in Maryland seeking membership in the Federation, and he devised a plan for building an integrated organization. Mr. Graham organized the Black blind people into the Greater Baltimore Chapter—the chapter where I am an active member today. It is not lost on me, a blind leader who happens to be White, that Ned Graham paved the way for my own membership in the chapter; correspondence from the time shows that he intentionally sought reverse integration as part of his strategy to build the movement. At the same time, Albert M. Balducci, a blind person employed in the shipping department at the National Brewing Company in Baltimore, served as president of the Maryland Council. Mr. Balducci was clearly interested in welcoming Black blind people to membership in the Council, but correspondence shows that he was vastly out-voted by the other members. In the early months of 1966, Graham and Balducci worked collaboratively and with the support of Federation leaders to develop a new affiliate constitution for the Free State Federation of the Blind that included both the Maryland Council and the Greater Baltimore organization as equal chapters. Two highlights of our 1966 Convention banquet were the celebration of Dr. tenBroek’s return to the Presidency and the powerful and symbolic appearance of Mr. Graham and Mr. Balducci together to accept the charter for our reorganized Maryland affiliate.

The momentum continued, and the December 1967 issue of the Braille Monitor celebrated our progress in a report from our Ohio affiliate, noting the first time a Black member was elected to the office of affiliate president. Reflect on all that is communicated in this short excerpt: “It is time that we recognize ability and dedication to cause, without respect to color, Al Smith has proven his capacity for work; he has a level head; he has an eternal desire to help his fellowmen. In addition to all this, his wife Amanda and three daughters are 100% back of him.”

Our 1968 Convention was notable for many reasons, but arguably the most significant was the election of the first Black member to the national board. It will be no surprise that the organizing and political skills of Mr. Ned Graham of Maryland were celebrated in his election to the Federation’s executive committee, where he continued to serve until he decided not to run in 1976. In 1968 Maryland also elected Mr. John McCraw—a Black blind leader who had worked closely with Graham in organizing the Greater Baltimore Chapter—to serve as president of the affiliate, which he did until his untimely death in 1978. By no means is this a complete dissertation of the influence of Black members on our movement, for that would take much more time than I have tonight. These reflections on who we have been speak to experiences within our movement today and who we want to be in the future.

Our past tells us that, as a movement of blind people, race has influenced the development of our organization. This should not be a surprise; in our nation race has mattered more than our consciousness has always accepted. We are still learning how to have an intentional dialogue about blindness and intersecting discriminations. Similarly, America’s current struggles involving race add complexity to what we seek to achieve within our own membership. It is not as simple as pointing to examples like Al Smith, Ned Graham, Ron Brown, Denise Avant, Shawn Callaway, or Ever Lee Hairston to demonstrate that barriers do not exist for our members with intersecting characteristics. But it is as simple as committing to learn from the authentic experience of these tenacious leaders who continue to build together with us. The opportunity and the challenge is to learn from both the strength of our diversity and our common bonds as blind people. We know who we are, and we will never go back; together we march forward and learn from our past.

Tonight, I have not shared with you the struggles with some agencies for the blind, the public’s low expectations about us, the wasted innovations of technology experts who do not know our real capacities, or our own internalized misconceptions. All of those barriers are still real, still a concern, and still at the center of the work we have yet to do. Tonight I am concerned about the need for us to remain unified in a movement of blind people, to recognize the strength that comes through our diversity, to understand the power that is gained from learning from our past, and to embrace the faith that is reflected in the bonds that bring us together.

To those in our membership who have not felt fully acknowledged in the past, we hear you. We are blind people, and we will no longer ask you to stand together with us while also asking you to ignore your intersecting characteristics. We are blind people who are strong enough to both remain united in our common bond and seek understanding of the social barriers that impact blind people because of their other characteristics. We regret that we have not always fully understood how our drive to remain united as blind people created less space for some to fully participate in our march to freedom. We lift up in celebration your strength and your commitment to organize on our behalf even if our space was not always as open as we wanted. We commit to learn from our past with you, because we are not yet finished. Our progress is real, and our pledge is “forward together.”

To those who feel our recent actions are taking away our effectiveness to advocate for the blind, we hear you. We will never go back to a time when the blind do not speak and act for ourselves through a unified movement. We will also not go back to a time when we do not adequately represent all blind people. You have taught us to think critically about where we have been and where we must go together. You have given us the strength and determination to ensure that we never do go back, that we do not return to a time when questions of difference divide us. To you, we say that our agenda continues to be driven by the hopes and dreams of blind people. We have not yet made it all the way up the hill, and we cannot go the rest of the way without you. We are not yet finished, and your experience matters as we move forward together.

To those blind people who are quick to blame other blind people for the problems we face, we challenge you to recognize the truth of our past. We choose to support each other as blind people because we acknowledge that all of us face the low expectations that stand between blind people and our dreams. We have supported each other, taught each other, and lifted each other up. Meanwhile, our nation’s education programs, rehabilitation system, government structures, and corporate priorities create real barriers for all blind people. No particular segment of blind people is at fault for the problems we face. However, a significant number of overlapping social issues, especially the persistent low expectations society holds for blind people, stand between us and our dreams. That is a product of the unfinished America we live in, but we have committed to make it better through this movement. It starts when we each make the individual pledge to participate actively in working together to advance our collective purpose—a pledge that requires us to learn and grow together. As in the past, forward together in the organized blind movement is the answer.

To all of us, united, I reflect on the truth that has bonded us together since 1940: regardless of what is happening in our nation or around the world, the strongest force in advancing the hopes and dreams of blind people is the National Federation of the Blind. This is the movement—a movement where individual blind people are determined to speak and act for themselves—a movement where the commitment to join together is easier than the work to stay together. We, the blind, have found ways to organize even when we did not have all the tools to institutionalize the principles we sought to meet. We, the blind, found ways to train ourselves to overcome the myths and misconceptions and to develop the confidence to believe first and always in each other. We, the blind, have shared the value of giving back to each other to build upon what previous generations have gifted to us. We, the blind, have sustained a nationwide march together with the goal of bringing blind people ever closer to the top of the hill. Our movement remains unfinished, and our progress is not yet done.

The revolution that we continue to engineer as blind people is driven by a personal commitment and love for each other in this movement. That is the kindness that was shown to me when I first came to know the Federation in 1996, and it has impacted every day of my life since that time. We commit not just our minds to the work but our hearts. The bond of faith that holds us together in this movement is a recognition that all of us take a risk in coming together. We risk letting each other down, failing to meet the commitment that is expressed in our organizational values, and being vulnerable in the process of growing and learning together in our march. The revolution comes in continuing to trust the movement to change our hearts and minds by working collectively together. For me, this has meant that every time I thought I understood blindness and the limits on our future, the movement pushed me even further. It is because of this movement of blind people that I have been able to get to know, love, and appreciate a truly diverse set of people and perspectives. Thank goodness you sought to understand my own limited viewpoints, granted me the grace of helping me understand the biases that came from my own experiences, and challenged me to go beyond what society had taught me about blindness and so many other aspects of humanity. All of us marching in this movement must continue to do that for each other if we are to make it to the top of the hill together. Our challenge is not each other nor is it our diversity. Our challenge is continuing to keep our hearts open to working together to overcome the common barriers that stand in our way. Yet no challenge can stand against the strength of our commitment to understand and believe in the hearts of our coequal marchers in this unfinished movement that is the National Federation of the Blind.

My Federation family, the struggles of society and race are not new to us. However, we have more power to do something about it than at any time in our history. We also have more to lose than at any time in our history. We have known it would not be easy—our march to freedom for the blind has never been easy. It has taken organization, struggle, compromise, setbacks, sacrifice, and the limited resources we could gather. “And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it.” We have overcome all of the challenges because we have bonded together in the organized blind movement. Since 1940, we have not confronted any obstacle that has stopped our progress. We know who we are, and we will never go back. Together as blind people, we march forward and learn from our past: a past that is filled with successes and failures, both informing our future. Our past taught us that we must speak and act for ourselves. Our present demands that we do the hard work necessary to go beyond where we have perceived our own limits to be. Our future requires a unified and authentic blind-led revolution to fulfill the dream. This is the commitment we make to each other. This is the love, hope, and determination felt in our march. This is the bond of faith that gives us the strength to overcome the combined forces of social instability, a pandemic, and persistent barriers preventing our full participation—a faith that can move mountains and mount movements. Let us go together to find the blind who have not yet felt our strength. Let us show the world that diversity is unity. Let us never be divided. Let us go build the National Federation of the Blind.

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