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A National Convention which would later be designated by its key figure as one of the finest episodes in our history took place in the sunshine of Miami Beach during the summer of 1979 when over one thousand members of the National Federation of the Blind gathered in a mood compounded of excitement and determination to dispatch the sowers of internal discord, to map the strategies of a dozen external campaigns, to celebrate a return to solvency, and to reassure each other that old acquaintances were not forgot.
Kenneth Jernigan, who had been restored to the presidency by acclamation only the year before, was to say of this Miami convention that it was one of our very best. There was a mood of closeness and harmony which probably surpassed anything we have ever had. And Ramona Walhof, the national leader who wrote the Monitor's convention roundup, called it a tremendous experience exciting, informative, uplifting, and spiritually rewarding.
What was remarkable about these accolades, in retrospect, was that they were uttered in reference to a convention which was compelled to deal with an organized campaign by dissident members to take over the Federation and reduce it to the impotence of a loose confederation of autonomous state groups. It might have been an ugly scene; but as it turned out the threat was summarily dispatched by the delegates through a series of decisive actions (to be described below) which left no doubt as to the feelings of the membership and the direction of the movement.
Scarcely less remarkable than the convention's dispatch of the internal quarrel was its general equanimity in the face of greater and more concerted attacks from without than the organized blind movement had known since the distant days of the civil war in the late fifties. That prevailing mood of confidence and quiet strength found eloquent expression in the banquet speech which President Jernigan delivered at the Miami convention. Addressing the theme "That's How It Is At The Top of the Stairs", Jernigan pointed out that the Federation's rapid growth in power and stature had brought with it, as a natural consequence, a rising tide of opposition amounting to a backlash: No group ever goes from second-class status to first-class citizenship without passing through a period of hostility, he said. Several years ago I made the statement that we had not even come far enough up the staircase of independence for anybody to hate us. I believe I can safely say that that problem has now been solved. We have enemies enough to satisfy even the most militant among us. We have actually progressed to the point of creating a backlash.
He went on to point out that the hardening of opposition and the widening of attacks upon the organized blind movement were cause not for dismay but for satisfaction as graphic evidence of the Federation's ascent to the higher reaches of the stairway: This is our challenge and our confrontation. It is also the strongest possible proof of how far we have come. For the first time in history, the choice is ours. As other minorities have discovered, the final steps are the hardest.
Here is the complete text of the Miami address: BLINDNESS: THAT'S HOW IT IS AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS
A second time of troubles for the organized blind reminiscent on a minor scale of the internal struggle that had wracked the movement two decades before descended upon the National Federation in the waning years of the seventies. Like the earlier episode, the new push for power by a dissident faction of the membership which was quickly to prove abortive grew out of a combination of adverse factors and events, some interconnected and others merely coincidental. But, unlike the earlier episode, this mini-rebellion barely rippled the surface of a united organization and left it stronger, closer-knit, and more mature than ever.
There were other differences between the two periods of stress. The civil war of the fifties had been fought over issues of some consequence (as well as others of merely personal ambition and spite); its effect was to settle in principle the question of NFB's identity and character, establishing the fact that it was not a loose confederation but a unitary national organization with authority to supervise its constituent local and state affiliates. Unfortunately what was established de facto was not reinforced and nailed down de jure, in the formalities of legal and constitutional procedure; the Federation's members had neither the stomach nor the energy, after their years of civil ordeal, to fight on further in the courts and the convention for what seemed already plainly settled and agreed upon. It was precisely that legal-procedural imprimatur, however, which was the significant achievement of the attempted mutiny of the late seventies. The issue was conclusively resolved in two venues: it was decided in the courts with victorious lawsuits against the dissidents in California, Washington, and Iowa respectively; and it was settled in the convention through constitutional amendments, resolutions, and other democratic decisions.
The most conspicuous difference between the two internal episodes was one of scale. The earlier episode of the fifties deserved the title of civil war, in terms of both size and duration; it involved real numbers, it spread through much of the country, and it sustained heavy casualties in the form of fallen chapters and split affiliates. The later insurrection broke out in two states California and Washington and when it had done its worst and played itself out it could claim but a handful of defectors in a single additional state, that of Iowa. It was for this reason that, for years thereafter, the entire episode would be widely known in the movement as the civil war that wasn't.
The first of the factors which combined to precipitate the new squabble was the 1977 resignation of President Jernigan for reasons of ill health. Inadvertently, but perhaps inevitably, that development sent a signal to anti-Federationists without and to dissident members within that a window of vulnerability had been opened and with it an opportunity for mischief and maneuver. To understand the internal side of this scenario it is important to recall the extraordinary growth enjoyed by the Federation during the seventies, which brought new members and chapters into the movement in numbers too great to be easily or quickly assimilated into the Federation community. Added to this, not incidentally, were the economic factors which had transformed the movement in a decade or two from a comfortable primary group in which everyone knew everyone into a far-flung network of affiliated groups and individuals. Despite this expansion there was, as we have seen, a countervailing force of community and family bonding; but not everyone in the nationwide network could be readily brought into the family circle. There were bound to be some who still felt alienated and at odds with the mainstream of the organized blind movement; and there would also be others who, alienated or not, misperceived the Federation community as a competitive scramble no different from the cut-throat enterprises of their own experience. In the two far western states of California and Washington encouraged by their geographic distance from the center, emboldened by the strength of their two affiliates, and enticed by the size of their state treasuries two overambitious leaders in particular (Robert Acosta and Sue Ammeter) conspired to carve out independent territories of their own, without regard for the limitations and constraints imposed by membership in the National Federation.
It should be noted that, while these internal power plays were going on, parallel forces outside the movement in particular some elements in the professional blindness system long opposed to the Federation had also been stirred into renewed agitation by the resignation of President Jernigan and the impression of weakness which that conveyed. The main journalistic conduit for their efforts to sabotage the NFB and its leadership became the Des Moines Register, a newspaper whose statewide circulation could be deployed to discredit Jernigan as Director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind as well as to malign the Federation itself with its national headquarters situated in Des Moines. Significantly the same paper had for nearly twenty years supported Jernigan and the Commission with uniform enthusiasm an attitude exemplified by a 1968 editorial on Jernigan, typical of numerous other articles over the years.
Here is the Register's editorial:
If a person must be blind, it is better to be blind in Iowa than anywhere else in the nation or the world. So said Harold Russell, chairman of the President's Committee on the Handicapped in awarding a presidential citation to Kenneth Jernigan and it's true.
More than that, the major reason it is true is that for ten years Kenneth Jernigan has been director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind.
Before coming here, Jernigan had sold insurance, taught in a teachers college, worked in a rehabilitation program for the blind in Tennessee, and then been psychologist and counselor at the California Rehabilitation Center for the Blind at Oakland.
He was brought here by Mrs. Alvin Kirsner, who had known him for years. She headed a volunteer group at B'nai Jeshurun's Temple Sisterhood which had turned a needed textbook into Braille the raised type which blind can read by touch for Jernigan when he was teaching in Nashville. By 1958 she was chairman of the Iowa Commission for the Blind, which at long last had a program and had talked the Iowa legislature into putting up some money for it.
Bringing Jernigan here to head it was a brilliant stroke. Jernigan is a dynamo. From one of the worst in the country, Iowa's rehabilitation program for the blind became one of the best in the country.
The money was essential, but even more important was the spirit Jernigan managed to infuse into it.
You can see it in the spirited swing of those long fiberglass canes the blind trainees use around Des Moines as they begin to acquire some confidence in the newly learned skill of traveling making their way around without help.
You can see it in the record his trainees have made, and in the growing acceptance of his work by the legislature and the public.
By public, we mean not just the people of Iowa. Among the center's trainees was a woman physician from Pakistan, who went back there to start a similar center. The Iowa program attracts visitors from all over the U.S. and the world.
The presidential award to Jernigan was richly deserved. All Iowans can be proud they have him in their midst.
That sweepingly positive attitude on the part of the Des Moines Register shifted abruptly to one of implacable hostility shortly after the Jernigan resignation from the NFB presidency. Various plausible explanations might be offered for this precipitous editorial mood swing. One was that the newspaper, afflicted with falling circulation and reduced revenues, needed a scapegoat and a burning cause around which to rebuild its reputation for investigative journalism a concept which had lately come into great popularity with the daily press and its readers as a result of the famous Woodward-Bernstein exposes during what were known as the Watergate scandals. Here in the newspaper's own back yard, in the person of Kenneth Jernigan, was a local figure with the highest name-recognition quotient across the state of any public official possibly excepting the governor.
The Register 's campaign was also evidently linked (through personal connections) to a recent legal victory of the Federation and its Minnesota affiliate over the Minneapolis Society for the Blind in a landmark case which had featured key testimony by Kenneth Jernigan. Certain facts are known, as Jernigan himself was later to write. We know, for instance, that Jesse Rosten became head of the Minneapolis Society for the Blind in the early 1970s and that the blind of Minnesota have been engaged in a bitter struggle with the Society for a decade. We know that Gil Cranberg is now head of the editorial section of the Des Moines Register and that he has been a power at the newspaper for more than twenty years. Rosten has bragged that Cranberg was his college roommate and that he could get at Jernigan through Cranberg.
Whatever the source of its motivation, the Register launched a flurry of attacks against the Iowa Commission and its director which, before the campaign finally subsided two years later, amounted to a total of more than 200 separate articles. All that needs to be said about these attacks by the Des Moines newspaper is that despite all of the headlines, the hype, and the promises of juicy exposure, no formal charges were ever brought, no accusations ever substantiated, and in fact the Register 's allegations were discredited one after the other until nothing was left of the affair but the disgust of the thinking public in Iowa who had rightly felt pride in the programs for the blind administered through two decades by Kenneth Jernigan. (Officials of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, which was part of the corporate structure that owned the Des Moines Register, were on the board of the Minneapolis Society for the Blind and apparently deeply resented Jernigan's involvement in the case that exposed the Minneapolis Society's violation of state law and attempted the suppression of rights of the blind of Minnesota. It was widely felt that the attacks by the Des Moines Register were at least in part, the result of corporate pique.) There was also evidence that the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped and other regressive agencies in the country made a concerted effort to plant stories in the Register, which they could then circulate to divert attention from their poor performance when Federationists called them to account for their program deficiencies and custodialism.
Many if not most of these journalistic assaults had been inspired or fed by the custodial agencies, both national and local, which had persistently warred with the organized blind among them the American Foundation for the Blind and its notorious offspring, NAC, and a number of state and municipal agencies which had been targeted by the NFB for exploitive labor practices (e.g., the Societies for the Blind in Minneapolis and Cleveland). There was also the company union of blindness, the American Council of the Blind, which had become almost abjectly dependent upon NAC and the American Foundation for financial support and accordingly toed the company line and carried out company wishes with respect to the independent blind of the National Federation (although as a dissident splinter group from an earlier era the ACB bore its own bitter grudge against its parent Federation). These and other agency-oriented groups were clearly instrumental in fomenting and sustaining the two-year vendetta waged by the Des Moines Register thereby providing what one blind person called immoral support to the new dissidents from California and Washington within the NFB.
In the aftermath of Kenneth Jernigan's resignation from the presidency in 1977 and at the same time as the newspaper attacks commenced in Iowa a dissident faction began to take shape in two of the Federation's state affiliates: those of California and Washington. The coincidence of these three events suggests that the dissidents thought to see a weakness in the structure of the Federation enabling them to exploit the situation for their own personal ambitions or at the least to spread confusion and disrupt the movement.
In these purposes, however, they were to be thoroughly disappointed. As indicated earlier, the membership of the Federation closed ranks swiftly behind its elective leaders at the 1979 convention in Miami Beach following repeated futile efforts to settle the issue by discussion and negotiation, notably at a special meeting in California of the National Board of Directors in September, 1978, during which a full hearing was afforded the dissident faction. The 1979 convention voted overwhelmingly (46 to 3) to expel the faction and proceeded to bestow new charters upon reorganized state affiliates in California and Washington. (It might be added that both of these reconstructed groups were shortly to become among the most vigorous and effective in the movement.)
Despite the decisive action of the convention and the unmistakable repudiation by the membership as a whole, the frustrated dissidents continued to agitate and to insist on their right to be called Federationists. That issue was not finally settled in the courts until January of 1983, when the California Court of Appeal dismissed with prejudice the last appeal of the California dissidents and brought an end to the entire episode of misguided ambition and personal spite. (Parallel court cases in Washington and Iowa were also settled in favor of the NFB, as was a peripheral episode in Hawaii which resulted in a reorganized affiliate.)
In the end the mini-rebellion was a sadly abortive affair which reminded some observers of a question asked in a different context: What if they gave a war and nobody came? The small band of dissidents in California and Washington, when they left in disgrace, took no affiliates with them not even their own. They had failed to shake the movement or stir the membership. One member said of them that they were like Shakespearean characters who strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then are heard no more their play only a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The long-range effect of the abortive civil war was summarized by Kenneth Jernigan in a 1983 Monitor report on the episode:
Whereas the NFB Civil War in the late 1950s divided and weakened us, the California situation drew us closer together and brought harmony and increased determination. We are now stronger than we have ever been. We have more momentum, more legislative influence, more sense of organizational purpose, more dedicated members, more love and understanding, and more care and concern for each other. The future looks better than it has ever looked, and tomorrow is bright with promise.
In the year of its fortieth anniversary, 1980, the movement of the organized blind found itself embarked upon a new and portentous phase of its career. It had successfully maneuvered the difficult physical transition from the Middle West (Des Moines) to the Eastern Seaboard (Baltimore) in the process purchasing a vast complex of buildings, creating the National Center for the Blind, and multiplying its output of materials. It had also defended itself successfully not to say spectacularly against the journalistic assault in Iowa with the publication and mass statewide distribution of an extraordinary Special Edition of the Braille Monitor (February, 1980) labeled "The Bizarre World of the Des Moines Register: Malicious and Reckless Disregard of the Truth". (Following that publication, for whatever reason, the Register suddenly ceased its drumbeat of critical attacks against Jernigan and the Commission.) At the same time the Federation was launching new campaigns and reinvigorating older ones in a host of areas where blind people were ill-used and poorly treated in the unfriendly skies of major airlines, in the underpaid and oversheltered workshops, in the conclaves and machinations of the NAC Pack and everywhere that their civil rights were denied or their dignity assailed.
The sense of motion and change, of transition amounting to transformation, and above all of renewed commitment to the objectives of Federationism pervaded the atmosphere of the Leamington Hotel in Minneapolis during convention week, 1980, where some two thousand blind Americans were assembled for the anniversary occasion. Apart from being the largest convention in Federation history, the event epitomized the spirit and character of the NFB's annual meetings during this volatile era; something was happening at every moment day or night throughout the week something epochal, edifying, or at least engaging. A subsequent report in the Monitor summarized:
The tone, the incredibly vast amount of information, the timeliness and variety of the resolutions, the enthusiasm, the Monday press conference, the march to the Minneapolis Society for the Blind, the events surrounding the meeting of the Kiwanis Club, the panels, the reports, the speakers, and the give-and-take of the jammed convention hall made this occasion what it was a vital, dynamic, action-packed, dramatic experience: one which will have a lasting and unforgettable impact upon those who were there, and, indeed, upon all of the blind everywhere.
The reference in that report to the march on the Minneapolis Society for the Blind points to a remarkable action taken by the convention as a whole to demonstrate peaceably but unmistakably the discontent of the organized blind with the exploitive labor practices of the Society's sheltered workshop, in which blind employees were forced to work at less (sometimes much less) than the minimum wage. The NFB's dispute with this workshop agency had persisted for nearly a decade, both in the press and in the courts. Convening in Minneapolis the home of the Society and its workshop the Federation decided to adjourn the convention for several hours one day in order to demonstrate its case en masse against the Minneapolis Society. This is how the Monitor later described the Minneapolis March :
More than 2,000 conventioneers left the hall in an orderly fashion, collected signs outside the hotel, and began to march through the streets toward the Minneapolis Society for the Blind chanting and singing as they went:
50,000 blind guys can't be wrong! We'll speak for ourselves! NAC, NAC get off our back! MSB hurts the blind!
Federationists who could not walk traveled to the Minneapolis Society on the bus and joined in the demonstration. Marchers traveled along Hennepin Avenue for several blocks before reaching the Minneapolis Society building. Windows along the way were crowded with curious onlookers. Pedestrians in the streets seemed surprised and interested in reading the signs.
When we reached the Minneapolis Society for the Blind headquarters, the press was waiting to meet us. Some of the reporters were standing with cameras on the roof; others held microphones in the streets; all were anxious to talk to Federationists, anyone who would answer questions. Of course, some of the reporters marched the entire route with us. As the marchers arrived, Dr. Jernigan and Joyce Scanlan began to tell our story once again only this time to the public in the city of Minneapolis over the loud speaker.
Dr. Jernigan said: We're here to speak to the Minneapolis Society for the Blind. Since they won't speak to us around the conference table, we have to speak to them in the great outdoors before the public and everybody. By the thousands and the tens of thousands the blind of this nation have rejected what the Minneapolis Society for the Blind stands for. Remember the workshop song. It is truly a folk song that comes from the people: I've been workin' in the workshop all the livelong day, and with the wages that they pay me it's just to pass my time away.
Here, look out of your doors, see from behind your walls what the blind of the nation think of you. Look at us and see if you think there are just a few of us as you have said. We're going to show you what the blind are like in our thousands and remember there are tens of thousands of us back in our home communities throughout this country. The days of exploitation are coming to an end.
The public of this nation will not stand for what you have done once they know it, and we're going to let them know it! Our line of march stretches back for blocks. We'll be here, all of us to see you.
The crowd chanted together, NAC, NAC get off our back. NAC, NAC get off our back. And we sang the workshop song, thousands of people singing together.
Joyce Scanlan came to the microphone and said: Hello, Minneapolis Society for the Blind. The blind of the nation have come here en masse today to speak to you, to tell you that we are fed up with your paternalism, your custodialism, your lies, your hypocrisy, and the arrogant, aristocratic way in which you have treated the blind so condescendingly. We will no longer tolerate it. We are here to tell you and the public that we will no longer put up with it. We will go back to court to see the proxies that you have not allowed us to see up to this point. We will fight you for violating the court order. We will gain our freedom. We will no longer be slaves of the Minneapolis Society for the Blind and the National Accreditation Council.
The crowd chanted: We speak for ourselves. We speak for ourselves.
Dr. Jernigan: Minneapolis Society, in the name of the blind of the nation, I speak to you. We have come to the outer walls of the Minneapolis Society for the Blind. We have come from our farms, our businesses, our workshops, and our agencies. We have come so that we might demonstrate our determination to be free. For four long decades we have struggled to throw off the yoke of bondage which has made us slaves to subminimum wages and substandard lives. We have battled the broom shops, mastered the mattress shops, and rejected the sweat shops. Through our sacrifices, our turmoil, and our scars, we have climbed close to the final plateau on the stairway to freedom. We have rejected the workshop tyranny, repudiated the workshop system, and refused to obey our workshop bosses. We are confident, self-reliant individuals willing to give as well as receive.
Through our trials we have learned the value of freedom. We have paid the price for first-class citizenship, and we're not willing to settle for second-class status under control of third-class masters. We have come today from throughout this nation to sustain our march toward freedom, to renew our climb up the stairway to first-class citizenship. We are here by the thousands representing the tens of thousands and the hundreds of thousands, to reject the custodial, repressive attitudes and programs of the Minneapolis Society for the Blind.
Our message is clear and unmistakable. It is directed to the Minneapolis Society for the Blind. It is intended as a response to the National Accreditation Council (NAC)- American Foundation for the Blind (AFB)-American Council of the Blind (ACB) combine. You have declared war on the blind of this nation. You have rejected reason. You have determined that character assassination is your only alternative to partnership and participation with the blind in society. Your time is past; your present is perplexed; and our future is not in your hands.
The top level of the stairway to freedom is just ahead of us. We say to the Minneapolis Society for the Blind: You can neither stop us nor dull our momentum. We have come to your gates to tell you this: We are simply no longer willing to be second-class citizens. We have said it to you before. You wouldn't listen to us. We tried to talk to you. You wouldn't talk to us. We are now here today to tell you as forcefully as we can: We do know who we are, and we will never go back. This is the message we leave with you, Minneapolis Society. Think about it, and see where you get with the public in this community from now on. Also talk to your colleagues in NAC throughout the country and the American Foundation for the Blind, and let us know how you fare in the war you have declared on the blind. We would've chosen peace, but you wouldn't have it that way. Very well, we are prepared on your terms to come forth and tell you we stand forth to meet you. We want good
will, and we want no strife and confrontation, but we're not going to be second-class, and you can't make us be. That is the message we have to bring to you and the only message we have to bring to you.
This statement was interrupted repeatedly and loudly with prolonged cheers.
As Federationists returned to the meeting hall, we were tired, hot, and hungry. We knew we had accomplished something very important and very worthwhile and hardly noticed how we felt. President Jernigan and Ralph Sanders told the convention that all four TV stations had covered the march and many radio stations had been there as well. Joyce Scanlan said that she hoped we had taught the Society something of the truth of our statements about blindness.
She said: Jesse Rosten expresses his philosophy on blindness something like this: They say that blindness is only a characteristic, well here are the keys to my car, now give me a ride home. President Jernigan asked if he is sighted, and Joyce answered that he is. Apparently Jesse Rosten thinks driving is the only way to get anywhere.
President Jernigan said: My answer to that is: Here's my Braillewriter, write me a speech. (Loud cheering from the audience.) It may be easier to get a driver for the car than a writer for a speech.
Joyce Scanlan continued: I want to tell you about something that the Minneapolis Society brags about that I think you'll like to hear. The State Services for the Blind here contracts with the Society for the rehab services that we all get. State rehab pays 75% of the cost of those programs. The Society has to make up the rest of the cost from some other program. They brag that in the workshop they have between 26 and 27% profit, and they boast that that profit is used for subsidizing the rehab program. Yet, they cannot pay their blind workers the minimum wage.
The fortieth annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind will be remembered by those who attended for the demonstration at the Minneapolis Society for the Blind. Someone raised the question: How can it be militant to do something so productive and really constructive? We knew we were fighting, but no blood was shed. We knew we had won the battle in Minneapolis on July 1 and 2. If what we did was militant, so be it. It was necessary, and victory sounded in the voices of the marchers.
The marchers in that purposeful parade felt that they were making history; the Federationists attending the fortieth anniversary convention felt that they were witnessing history; and the delegates and guests at the convention banquet felt that they were a part of history. Their President himself a figure of historic proportions, a mover and shaker of such undeniable impact as to have become a legend in his time fully understood the historicity of the moment and made it the subject of his banquet address: "Blindness: The Lessons of History." As he had done in other presidential orations, Jernigan recalled the background of powerlessness and poverty from which the movement had sprung forty years before, and compared it with the affluence and influence of the present day emphasizing that the history of the organized blind was not something that happened to them but something that they made happen. But he also pointed out that their positive action upon the world was bringing about an equal and opposite reaction of negativity in the form of a concerted combination of hostile agency forces dedicated to the sabotage and ultimate demolition of the organized blind movement. Led by the American Foundation for the Blind, he said, this alliance consists of NAC; our breakaway splinter group, the American Council of the Blind; the Affiliated Leadership League of and for the Blind; and a handful of other would-be custodians and keepers. They have interlocked their boards, concerted their actions, pooled their hundreds of millions of dollars of publicly contributed funds and tax money, and undertaken the deliberate and calculated destruction of independent organization and self-expression on the part of the blind.
But Jernigan expressed confidence that the organized blind would prevail again as they had overcome before against the massed hosts of repression, reaction, and regression: We shall prevail against NAC and the other custodial agencies; we shall prevail against social exclusion and discrimination; and we shall prevail against those few in our own movement who would destroy it with bitterness and strife. We are stronger and more determined than we have ever been, and we have learned well the lessons of history.
The full text of the 1980 banquet address follows: BLINDNESS: THE LESSONS OF HISTORY
The opening years of the decade of the eighties, which were also the early years of the second Jernigan presidency, might be characterized as the "Era of Rising Expectations" among the blind of the country. No longer was it sufficient merely to have a job if that job was in a sheltered workshop. No longer was it good enough just to receive vocational training if that training was in "blind trades" like basket weaving, chair caning, and broom making. No longer could the airlines arbitrarily prohibit blind passengers from sitting in the designated rows; the blind would not be moved. No longer could the entertainment media casually portray blind persons as bungling, confused, and ridiculous; they could try, but they would regret it. These were only a few of the practices whose prejudicial character had been exposed and their practitioners called to account. But it was not the agencies and professional elites of the blindness system who had rung the bell and sent the message. It was the organized blind, the members of the National Federation, who dared to disturb the universe dared to talk plainly in polite company (such as conventions, government hearings, and NAC meetings) dared to risk displeasure, verbal abuse, and physical intimidation dared, in short, to take the heat. Only the organized blind had the nerve (the unmitigated gall) to picket and march and demonstrate on the public streets, to shout their grievances from the housetops, to say again and again, in one idiom or another: We know who we are, and we will never go back! or: We are the blind. We are the people. We speak for ourselves!
It was not that way always, of course. In fact it had not been that way very long. Even after the founding of the National
Federation in 1940, the lives of blind men and women were still ringed around with insecurity, their movements tentative, their brains washed. But the coming of the NFB had opened the door and let in the air of freedom the breath of opportunity the impossible dream of equality. The new age had begun, as Kenneth Jernigan was to say, and the blind had turned a corner of time. After that they would never turn back.
That was part of the message President Jernigan delivered to the Federation and to the world in 1981 at the National Convention in Baltimore. He called his speech "Blindness: The Corner of Time," and he spoke of critical junctures and turning points in the history of the organized blind. At first the Federation was small and ignored, he said. Most of the agencies tried to deny its difference, pretending that it was simply another of themselves, one among many. In some parts of the country our chapters were weak and our purpose blurred. Sometimes the agencies took control of our affiliates, bought off the leaders or bribed and threatened.
But the direction was certain and the trend unmistakable, Jernigan declared. The blind kept joining first by the thousands,
then by the tens of thousands. In the beginning we were weak and divided. Then came accelerating power and unity. Ultimately we were fifty thousand members clear in our mission, sure in our purpose, and firm in our unity: the strongest force in the affairs of the blind.
The organized blind, he said, had turned the corner of time. But the problem was that not many others in the field had kept pace with them in their progress and transition; the most reactionary of the agencies (those that turned back at the corner of time) even joined forces and pooled their efforts back in the fifties to resist the organizing efforts of the blind: Hard though it is to comprehend or believe, their purpose (which became a veritable obsession and a principal endeavor) was to make war upon the blind, the very people they were pledged to serve. Not all of the blind not the meek or the passive or the ones they could control: these were needed for show and fundraising. Only the troublemakers the independents the members of the National Federation of the Blind. Above everything else, they wanted to destroy the National Federation of the Blind and its leaders.
The NFB's President went on to observe that, when those destructive efforts failed and the organized blind grew too powerful to crush, attitudes softened in the blindness system and numbers of agencies summoned the will and the sensibility to approach the present and turn the corner of time. These had become partners and allies of the organized blind, prepared to walk with them (if not to march with them) and to turn the next corner of time without looking back. Lagging behind them, he said, were other agencies with good intentions but poor understanding of the new reality and the new world; for these there was hope, and toward these there should be toleration. But what about the others? he went on. What about NAC and its principal allies? They are not misinformed or confused, and they are not motivated by good intentions. They know exactly what they are doing. They have deliberately and cold-bloodedly set out to ruin our movement and destroy the reputations and careers of our leaders.
Jernigan thereupon proceeded to document and itemize an incredible succession of accusations, insults, physical assaults, break-ins, and other episodes of hooliganism and harassment directed against leaders of the organized blind movement at various levels throughout the country during the years just past incidents which he charged had all the earmarks of an orchestrated campaign. But he leveled a blunt warning to all those still filled with hate and still dwelling mentally amid the straw and broomcorn of the workhouse, that their time was fast running out: They will either learn to respect us and treat us as equal human beings, or they will go out of business. It is that simple, that definite, and that final. And he concluded with these ringing words:
Upon the rock of Federationism we have built our movement, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it! For the first time in history we can play a decisive role in determining our own destiny. What we in the Federation do during the next decade may well determine the fate of the blind for a century to come. We have turned the corner of time, and we live in a newness. My brothers and my sisters, the future is ours! Come! Join me on the barricades and we will make it all come true.
Following is the complete text of the 1981 convention banquet speech: BLINDNESS: THE CORNER OF TIME
An underlying theme of Federationist literature and doctrine, evident from the very outset of the movement and increasingly prominent over the decades, was that the fundamental problem of blindness was to be found not in the physical condition but in the social environment not in anatomy but in attitude. For Kenneth Jernigan in particular this theme, and variations on the theme, resounded and re-echoed in his speeches and writings all the way from, for example, "Blindness: Concepts and Misconceptions" (a convention address delivered in 1965) through "Blindness: The Myth and the Image" (1970 banquet address) to "Blindness: Simplicity, Complexity, and the Public Mind" (1982 banquet address) and beyond.
The real problem of blindness, he said in 1965, is not the blindness itself not the acquisition of skills or techniques or competence. The real problem is the lack of understanding and the misconceptions which exist. The primitive conditions of jungle and cave are gone, but the primitive attitudes about blindness remain. And five years later he sounded the warning note again: Of all the roadblocks in the path of the blind today, one rises up more formidably and threateningly than all others. It is the invisible barrier of ingrained social attitudes about blindness attitudes based on suspicion and superstition, on ignorance and error, which continue to hold sway in men's minds and to keep the blind in bondage.
In 1982, speaking before a banquet audience at the Minneapolis convention, President Jernigan again struck the same major chord: Our basic problem in 1940 was society's misconceptions and misunderstandings, he said. That is still our problem today. But then he noted a significant difference between the early days and the present hour:
In 1940 we were not organized and had not yet developed our philosophy, planned our public education campaigns, worked to eliminate our own false beliefs and misconceptions, or started the slow process of bringing society to new ways of perceiving and understanding. For the blind of the country, the greatest single difference between 1940 and today (and it is a tremendous difference) is the fact of the National Federation of the Blind our concerted effort, our carefully thought out philosophy, our mutual encouragement and assistance, and our absolute determination to achieve first-class citizenship. Yes, we have learned it the hard way but we have learned it. We know who we are, and we will never go back.
The President's theme was a new iteration of one which had been treated before the public mind and its misconceptions and that provided him with both a subtheme, Simplicity, and a contrapuntal theme, Complexity. For the unchanged patterns of the public mind, the permanence of social attitudes, suggested an underlying simplicity and sameness; but the changes in the lives of blind people through four decades, the impact of self-organization, and the evolution of competence and confidence, was making for a new complexity in the field of blindness and the affairs of the blind. All of these were elements (unresolved and mixed together) in the title of his speech but not without the hope of future synthesis and balance. The 1982 banquet address one of the best-remembered of the second Jernigan presidency was entitled "Blindness: Simplicity, Complexity, and the Public Mind."
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