A presentation made to the Eighty-first Annual Convention of the National Federation of the Blind, Thursday, July 8, 2021
From the Editor: This presentation was recorded prior to the convention with President Riccobono interviewing Congressman Kweisi Mfume. I think this is a most dynamic discussion about leadership and believe you will enjoy it as much as I have:
President Riccobono: I recently had an opportunity to sit down to talk about leadership and the work of the National Federation of the Blind and the common bonds that we share with the transformational change that happens in civil rights. I had the opportunity to sit down with our local representative here in Maryland, Representative Kweisi Mfume, who has known the Federation now for a long time. He wasn't able to be with us in person, but we did film this interview just a few days ago. So, let's roll the interview with Congressman Mfume.
President Riccobono starts the interview: It's my pleasure to close the opening ceremonies of this 2021 virtual convention hosted by our Maryland affiliate by introducing a man who has represented the people of Baltimore City in one capacity or another going back to 1978 when the Federation first made Baltimore its home for our national headquarters. In 1978 Mr. Mfume was elected to the Baltimore City Council, where he began fighting against policies that left out one or another significant segment of the city's citizens. In 1986 he was elected to represent Maryland's Seventh Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives. He was reelected four times until he decided to take on another challenge.
In February 1996, Congressman Mfume left his seat in the House to accept the presidency of the NAACP, stating at that time he believed that he could do more to impact American civil rights from his seat at the NAACP than he could in Congress, and he served that organization for eight years.
On November 4, 2019, Mr. Mfume announced his candidacy for the special election for his previous seat in Congress, which became vacant after the untimely death of Congressman Elijah Cummings. Federation members will remember that Congressman Cummings was a strong supporter of the Federation as well and appeared at our convention in 1986.
Congressman Mfume has the distinction of having been elected twice in 2020, winning the special election, electing him to Congress in the spring, and then winning reelection in the fall. In Congress he serves on a number of important committees, including the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the Committee on Small Business, where he is the vice chair, and the United States House Committee on Education and Labor. We are proud that he represents Baltimore and equally as important, the values that we share in our movement regarding equal treatment under the law and within society. Congressman, thank you very much for being with us today.
Congressman Mfume: Well, Mark, thank you very much for that very kind and overly gracious introduction. I do appreciate it. I appreciate even more the fact that I can be joining the convention talking with so many people about issues that I like to believe that we all share the same outlooks on and the same beliefs about. My tenure in office really goes back, so when you said 1979, I remembered that election and I remembered my introduction to people who were part of the Federation, and I got a different perspective then that has never left me. I've tried to always think of it as the perspective of blind people and the challenges that affect blind people.
I know that the Federation believes strongly that blindness does not define you, nor should it ever define anybody at all. I know that you work to raise the expectations of blind people across America to believe, rightly so, that they can achieve anything—absolutely anything—if they have the determination. The National Federation of the Blind provides the capacity for that. I really, really appreciate it. I am not here to sing any songs about myself but to talk to you as someone who for many, many years in public office and in other offices has worked to advocate on behalf of blind people in our country. By the way, the second bill that I introduced when I got here was the national technology act [Assistive Technology Affordability Act or ATAA] that would provide a way for blind people to be able to access the changing technology, and to be able to deduct that so that it would be a writeoff. I don't think there ought to be any impairment or any impediments that prevents people, in this case blind people, from achieving their dream.
It is difficult sometimes for government and for government officials to see every aspect of the people that are part of this nation. I've tried to be just a steady voice on behalf of my blind brothers and sisters, because I have an opportunity serving in a body where I can be that voice and where somebody ultimately will listen. So, it's really great to be here. I tell you, here in Baltimore, every day that I go down I-95 through the Francis Scott Key Tunnel and look over at Wells Street and see the National Federation of the Blind sign there, it's just like looking at an old friend from a distance. Sometimes people ask me, "Why are you staring over there?"
And I just say, "I want to make sure it's still there."
They say, "Keep your hands on the wheel," so I try to keep my hands on the wheel. Thank you for having me. I'll try to respond to any questions you may have. Congratulations to everybody who is participating and over the years have supported each other by supporting this very important organization. Thank you, Mark.
President Riccobono: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for being here. We're very proud to be in Baltimore, as I know you are to represent Baltimore. The connection between our organization and you runs way back, as you've indicated, and you had the opportunity to encounter one of our great civil rights leaders, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who helped to found our headquarters here in Baltimore. I wonder if you have any reflections on any experiences that you had with Kenneth Jernigan, another fellow civil rights leader.
Congressman Mfume: Well, Ken was a great storyteller. I kind of sat at his feet when we were having meetings, literally just to listen to the perspectives that he would offer. They'd always be different perspectives, things that people had not talked about. I particularly liked hearing him talk about his own struggles, but more importantly, his own victories. He was a true and dedicated leader in every sense of the word, and I think about him periodically. I know that his sense, his spirit, his essence is still deeply woven in the organization and its beliefs. If I might go so far as to say that even his spirit continues to be a part of the Federation. So, thanks for bringing his name up. That goes back a way, but that was just another way that I became further aware of the issues that oftentimes people don't think about, because you've got to talk to a blind person to hear those issues. If you're not talking to blind people, you won't know what's on their mind. I don't profess to be the only one that does it, but I do know that's the best way to find out the issues that are affecting so many people.
President Riccobono: Yeah, it's always great to encounter folks that did spend time with Dr. Jernigan. I did not have that opportunity. I was only around in the organization a very short time before he passed away, so I always love hearing from folks who had that firsthand experience.
Before we talk about Congress, which is an interesting topic, I do want to talk about the time when you left Congress to join the NAACP. You know, the National Federation of the Blind is working on addressing the intersection of blindness and other marginalized characteristics. Given your lifelong commitment to civil rights, I'm wondering if you can comment on how our movement specifically can get the capacities of blind people discussed more within other civil rights movements, and then similarly, what might we do to address issues of intersectionality within the organized blind movement?
Congressman Mfume: Well, it's a very good question, and I'll do my best to try to answer it. Just a little bit of background: after having served nine years in the Congress, I felt that I could do more outside of the Congress because of the way it had shifted and had become much different from when I entered it. So in those last two years I felt that I needed to find a way to do more, and perhaps the best way to do that would be to leave the Congress, go back into let's say the streets, but go back into, in many respects, a world that is different from the United States Congress. When I was asked to take over the leadership of the NAACP, I saw it as an opportunity to do that. We work on behalf of marginalized groups and people throughout our country by using the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization as a way to do that. By pushing the envelope, if you will, the organization instead of contracting would expand in terms of the number of groups that it fought for and the number of civil rights and civil liberties that had to be included. Of course, the issues and the rights of blind people were right at the top of that list.
Once you get past the obvious, that people think the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is only concerned about Black people, I have had to say to them that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ought to teach us that colored people come in all colors. When you think that way, you automatically start expanding your outreach. That intersectionality you talked about earlier becomes a natural part of what you do. You keep realizing that there are so many different organizations and groups that have to be included under the umbrella of civil rights that if you don't get that, then that intersection will be one that you'll drive right by, and you won't even know that you've driven by it. But when you do get it, it's important that you share it.
I spent an additional nine years there at the NAACP trying to make sure that we did what we had to do for core constituencies, but I wanted to see that we were smart enough to know that we didn't know that there were constituent groups out there that needed to be a part of this, that needed the same sort of opportunities and protections, and, quite frankly, were civil rights organizations, even though they weren't in that respect. That's how I always saw the Federation: as a major civil rights organization.
I can't really speak about the NAACP now that I've been away from there, except that I continue to say on every platform that I have and with every chance that I have: civil rights does not belong to any one group or any one organization. The rights of individuals have to be looked at as a whole bucket of different rights and a bucket that must include every group and everybody who can clearly make the case that they must have certain protections under the law, and they have to have certain opportunities under the law. So, this notion of expanding opportunities for blind people for me has just been part and parcel of what I've done. I admire the work of the Federation, which does much more than I do. But I also know that expanding opportunities and increasing accessibility and understanding that civil rights does not belong to any one group will build a broader coalition. It's through those coalitions, quite obviously, that we make change. We always have to stop at the intersection of civil rights, human rights, and decency. When we stop on that corner, we realize, like a lot of people do, that you cannot overlook blind people in that process and that those same rights and protections that you are fighting for have to be afforded to all people.
President Riccobono: I appreciate your comments on that. We in the last couple of years were very honored to lead a case against the United States Department of Education for its real failure to adequately process civil rights complaints, and although we brought the case, we were pleased to have the NAACP join us with its intersecting interests in the case. We got a positive outcome in that matter, and it just shows the power of our working together. So we appreciate your comments.
Let's come back to Congress and get your notions on a few things. Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, Bobby Scott, has introduced the Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act. This bill would eliminate the payment of subminimum wages to people with disabilities. Would you spend a minute talking to us about the dignity of work for all marginalized groups but also your own feeling about the persistent use of government certificates to pay people with disabilities less than the guaranteed minimum wage?
Congressman Mfume: Isn't that an absolute affront? I mean, you wonder how this could be in 2021 in the United States of America? How could this be looked at as a regular way of doing business? It is an affront to blind people, and it is an affront to persons like myself who are not blind who recognize that you cannot marginalize and minimize people and expect to maximize the kind of output that they have. You can't maximize their potential by minimizing them in other ways. Bobby Scott is a dear friend. He is my chairman of the committee, and I'm glad that he has decided to do this. I'm almost a little sad, though, that a member of Congress or Congress itself has got to initiate something that clearly says that you're treating one group unfairly. I feel strongly about that. This subminimum wage and these certificates and these other things are things we wouldn't do with anybody else. I mean, let's face it: if we did this to other groups, we'd be afraid that there's going to be a backlash. Quite frankly, the government ought to be afraid there's going to be a backlash about this now that it's coming to light as a result of this bill and discussions like this and organizations around the country that are saying, oh, no, I didn't know that. It can't be true, and it can't be happening, but it is, unfortunately, the way that sort of business is being done. I support Chairman Scott on that, and I'm hoping that we get not only a swift hearing but a good hearing. I hope that we can bring in representatives from organizations like the Federation and others who have done the work and toiled in the field for many, many years to give credibility to why it ought to be passed. I'm hoping that once those hearings start—I'll be there, of course—but I hope that the Federation is there making the kinds of statements and points that people need to hear that, quite frankly, will open the eyes of many members of Congress who have not focused on this at all.
President Riccobono: We'll be pushing all the way. We appreciate your support. We look forward to the day that the President of the United States signs the bill eliminating this practice from the laws of the United States. I know we're running short on time, so I think I'm going to jump to asking you about voting. I know that in the special election, you were particularly vocal about making sure that there was enough in-person voting locations in your district to support people who wanted to vote in person. Can you talk to us a little bit about the importance from your point of view of making sure that all Americans can participate in the voting process and especially accessibility in that process for blind people?
Congressman Mfume: I'd be redundant if I said, as I will, that voting is such a right in this country that we should always do whatever we can to protect it and to expand it so that everybody can take part in that right. Unfortunately, that's not always been the way our government has operated. We do things that we think are important, but we don't do them for all people or all groups. I know that people who don't vote have no line of credit with the people who are elected. Therefore, they pose no threat against those who operate against them. I don't want blind Americans in that position at all—where you can't vote or it's difficult to vote—and then you don't have a line of credit with the people like myself who are elected. Sometimes people get elected, and they assume that they got elected without the support of the blind community, which is the strangest thing in the world, but some people actually believe that. So it's important for persons like myself to keep raising issues. By the way, I had four elections in ten months last year, Mark. I wouldn't wish that on anybody at all. But I just became outraged at the first election when I walked into a couple of polling places and noticed that there were blind citizens there, one living not that far from me, trying to talk to the election judges about being able to vote. The judges, good people with good hearts I assume, just were unprepared because the Board of Elections was unprepared. We ought never have had that situation. As many times as we have elections in this country, that should be one of the first things that we think about. I think what happens is that we think of accessibility, and we think of people who can't walk. But we don't always think of accessibility as applying to people who cannot see, and we've got to continue to be redundant about that. So, yeah, I raised a little "you know what" during the election on election day and thereafter, because I didn't think it was fair. They changed their practice for blind people in the seventh district so that they are now able to vote just like anyone else and to be able to do that in a way that they don't have to beg election judges or point out to election officials that they are who they say they are or demonstrate that they know how to vote. Some of the machines have been changed, at least in the second, third, and fourth elections last year, to be able to accommodate blind voters in our district. Unless we talk about that, I don't think it's going to change. It ticks me off when I see that inaccessibility. It's an inherent reaction from me every time because I've worked so long, and I can see Ken on my shoulders now saying "We can't have this; we can't have this." So as long as his spirit is with me, I'm going to make sure I continue to raise those points.
President Riccobono: Yeah, I love it. Two more quick questions. One relates to voting. That is: There are blind people out there who are thinking, wow, it would be great to be able to serve in the United States Congress, but I'm a blind person. There aren't any blind people in Congress. What would you say to an aspiring blind person who is really interested in public service, but, of course, doesn't see anybody like them in the Congress today? What would you say to encourage them to get in the mix of public service and running for office?
Congressman Mfume: The first thing I'd say is there are many glass ceilings out there, and this is one of them. It's about time that it gets broken. There have been instances of blind people running for office. We don't have any elected to the United States Congress, but that shouldn't thwart anybody's efforts. I just believe that whether you're running for the city council or the school board or the mayor or a state delegate or representative from the state or from the Federal Government, the first thing to do is to take that first step forward. Then others will follow, or believe at least that nothing should limit them or their capacity. I always said it's not how you start in life that counts; it's how you finish. In this case it doesn't matter that you are blind. What matters is that you make the effort and that you make the case and finish the race. As sure as I'm talking to you, Mark, somebody will come back and look at these words—hopefully not many years from now but soon—and say that was right because we've elected a blind person to this office or one to that office. All you have to do is do it the first time. It's like any other kind of wall; it will come tumbling down. And it's one of the last walls in this society that I think we're burdened with. I'd love for that wall to come down and that glass ceiling to be cracked, but we need good candidates. If you feel like you are believing so deeply in issues and if it's in your heart to do it, it's not easy, and it probably is harder for a blind person, but I would encourage everybody that feels that way to make the case. Otherwise we'll continue to have people in office who really don't care or sometimes who have so much money that they practically buy the office. That idea of electing a blind person will be something that they never even conceive of. So, we've just got to try, just got to make sure that candidates are from every state and that you challenge not just the issues but challenge the people, challenge the constituents to look at you as they would look at themselves so that they do not see a disability, challenge them so that they're listening to what you say, that they're listening to your heart and your passion, and you'll gather votes. Eventually, again, that wall will crumble, and that glass ceiling will come down, but I would strongly encourage anyone who's considering running to by all means do it.
President Riccobono: Well, Congressman, I think that's a great place to leave it, to close out the opening evening of our 2021 virtual convention hosted here from Baltimore but really happening everywhere. I want to give you the last word as a friend and supporter of the National Federation of the Blind in the United States Congress. Is there anything that you would like to leave the blind of America with this evening?
Congressman Mfume: Well, I believe that sometimes our biggest burdens are the ones that we refuse to let go of. I think that it is important for all of us to recognize not just our capabilities but our purpose. I would dare say, not being a blind person that the purpose of anyone who happens to be blind is to make life better for the rest of us. Perhaps particularly is it your goal to make life easier for other blind people who are coming behind you, some of whom have yet to be born? I suggest it is to make sure that when people—sighted people—look back through the telescope of time, they see all the great efforts that the blind community has put forward and all the great changes that have been made because of the impact of a coalition of people all across the country who believe that their purpose in life is to really change things and to make it better, particularly for blind people, but also for our nation. That's what we really need. It's a noble purpose, and it's one that you just can't make up. It's got to be in your heart, and I know it's in the heart of so many! I know it's in the heart of the Federation because I've watched your work since day one, and I'm just happy to be counted among those you consider to be an ally, particularly now in the United States Congress. I will pledge, as I did in 1979 when I met Ken, that I will do all that I can, and when I can't do something, I will let you know, and then I will ask you to push me harder to make sure that we find a way to get it done by bringing people together around causes and issues that speak to civil rights, civil liberty, and human dignity for everybody in this country. Thank you, Mark.
President Riccobono: Thank you, Congressman. Thank you for being here. Any time you're coming through the tunnel and feel compelled to hit the exit and pull up to Wells Street, come on in. We'll give you a cup of coffee, and we'll share some stories. Thank you for your leadership, and thank you for your time. It's a pleasure.Congressman Mfume: Thank you, sir. My best to all of you.