In 1997, the Convention address was entitled "The Day After Civil Rights." It combined a philosophical understanding with the experiences of everyday life, and it reached an astonishing conclusion. Contained in this address are the articles written for two Kernel Books along with the introductions. Both of these books, Like Cats and Dogs and Wall-to-Wall Thanksgiving, were published in 1997. Here is what Dr. Jernigan said:


An Address Delivered by

Kenneth Jernigan

At the Banquet of the Annual Convention

of the National Federation of the Blind

New Orleans, Louisiana, July 4, 1997

It has been said that all knowledge consists of definition and classification, and even definition may be just another way of classifying. History, for example, can be classified (or divided) into ancient, medieval, and modern; secular and ecclesiastical; American, English, European, African, Asian, and Latin American; political, economic, and social. And there are hundreds of other ways of doing it.

As to our history, the history of the organized blind movement, I classify or divide it into four stages. Of course, I could add a fifth-the centuries and eons before our founding in 1940. But I prefer to think of that time as the dark ages, the pre-history before hope and enlightenment.

When the National Federation of the Blind came into being almost six decades ago, our problem was simple. It was to find enough food to keep body and soul together-not for all of us, of course, but for many. If you are hungry, it is hard to think about anything else. And the blind were hungry.

And then we moved to a second stage, the attempt to find jobs. Call it rehabilitation. It wasn’t that poverty had been eliminated, but it had been so reduced that we could now begin to think about something else, about jobs, about how to earn and not just be given. Naturally, the desire for jobs was there from the beginning, but it now moved to the center of the stage. This was in the late ‘50’s, the ‘60’s, and the ‘70’s. We wanted jobs-and we found them. Not always according to our capacity and not always with equal pay-but jobs.

And then we moved to a third stage. Call it civil rights. After a person has satisfied hunger and found a job, there is still something else-the search for self-esteem and equal treatment-the yearning to belong and participate-to be part of the family and the broader community. And for us, as for other minorities, there was only one way to get there-confrontation. The status quo always fights change.

Many people think that civil rights and integration are the same thing. They aren’t. The concept of civil rights precedes integration and is a necessary precursor to it. As used in the late twentieth century, the term civil rights (although some will deny it) always means force-an in-your-face attitude by the minority, laws that make somebody do this or that, picketing, marches in the street, court cases, and much else. And we have done those things, all of them. We had to.

But there comes a day after civil rights. There must. Otherwise, the first three stages (satisfying hunger, finding jobs, and getting civil rights) have been in vain. The laws, the court cases, the confrontations, the jobs, and even the satisfying of hunger can never be our prime focus. They are preliminary. It is not that they disappear. Rather, it is that they become a foundation on which to build.

Legislation cannot create understanding. Confrontation cannot create good will, mutual acceptance, and respect. For that matter, legislation and confrontation cannot create self-esteem. The search for self-esteem begins in the period of civil rights, but the realization of self-esteem must wait for the day after civil rights.

It will be easy for me to be misunderstood, so I want to make something very clear. We have not forgotten how to fight, and we will do it when we have to. We must not become slack or cease to be vigilant, and we won’t. But we have now made enough progress to move to the next stage on the road to freedom. I call it the day after civil rights.

If a minority lives too long in an armed camp atmosphere, that minority becomes poisoned and corroded. We must move beyond minority mentality and victim thinking. This will be difficult-especially in today’s society, where hate and suspicion are a rising tide and where members of minorities are encouraged and expected to feel bitterness and alienation and members of the majority are encouraged and expected to feel guilt and preoccupation with the past. Yes, it will be hard to do what I am suggesting, but we must do it. We must be willing to give to others as much as we want others to give to us, and we must do it with good will and civility. We must make the hard choices and take the long view.

Let me be specific. If a blind person tries to exploit blindness to get an advantage, or tries to use blindness as an excuse for failure or bad behavior, we must not defend that blind person but must stand with the sighted person that the blind person is trying to victimize. This will not be easy; it will not always be politically correct; and it will frequently bring criticism, not only from those blind persons who claim to want equality but are not willing to earn it, but also from some of the sighted as well. But we must do it anyway. If we want equal treatment and true integration, we must act like equals and not hide behind minority status. Yes, blind people are our brothers and sisters, but so are the sighted. Unless we are willing to have it that way, we neither deserve nor truly want what we have always claimed as a birthright.

That birthright, equal responsibility as well as equal rights, is the very essence of the NFB’s philosophy. It is what we set out to get in 1940; it is what we have fought for every step of the way; it is what we are now close to achieving; and it is what we are absolutely determined to have. Equal rights-equal responsibility.

We are capable of working with the sighted, playing with the sighted, and living with the sighted; and we are capable of doing it on terms of complete equality. Likewise, the sighted are capable of doing the same with us-and for the most part, I think they want to. What we need is not confrontation but understanding, an understanding that runs both ways. This means an ongoing process of communication and public education.

It is for that reason that in 1991 we introduced the Kernel Books. As I said at last year’s convention, what we have done in writing, publishing, and distributing these books is nothing short of revolutionary. More than three million of them are now in circulation, and the difference they have made in public attitudes about blindness would be hard to exaggerate.

This year, following our usual pattern, we are issuing two more Kernel Books. Book twelve, Like Cats and Dogs, is available now; and book thirteen, Wall-to-Wall Thanksgiving, will come this fall. There are, of course, many other elements in our educational program, but the Kernel Books are the centerpiece of it. As you hear the introductions to the two 1997 books and excerpts from the articles I wrote for them, keep in mind the context and the reason for publishing them. They must carry a message without being so preachy that nobody will read them, and they must be entertaining without blurring the purpose: