The Man Within the Movement

Incisive intelligence, scintillating wit, and unalterable determination are not the characteristics ordinarily associated with the blind, and even when they are present in the life of a blind individual, these traits are sometimes unrecognized because of the traditional misunderstanding and misperception so often associated with the blind. However, the life of one towering human being personified these characteristics and changed forever the prospects of blind people in our own country and in lands beyond our borders. This one man, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, gathered about him the blind of more than a generation and gave to them his understanding, instilling in them during the process a method of thought and a spirit of living which altered the future for them all. What did this man know that so many others had missed? The answer is simple and, at the same time, complex. It cannot be given in a word, a paragraph, or a page. It must be observed in a habit of belief and a way of life.

Dr. Jernigan was an inspirational speaker at the convention podium, a tireless crusader for the rights of the blind, a powerful writer and editor of an endless stream of publications, a charismatic presence, and an unforgettable personality.

At the Iowa Commission for the Blind, Dr. Jernigan served as director of statewide programs for twenty years from 1958 to 1978, and in the process transformed the agency from the nation’s worst to the nation’s finest by every measure of performance. He also became the revered instructor to successive generations of disoriented blind students who arrived at the center without hope and left it as graduates without the stultifying fear that had stifled their progress before they arrived. During the time that Dr. Jernigan served as director, the blind of Iowa became known as the best-trained group of blind people anywhere in the world, and their performance lived up to the reputation. For twenty years the graduates of this program demonstrated leadership in communities throughout the United States.

His genius for persuasion was nowhere more apparent than in the long uphill struggle of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), alone and beleaguered at the outset, against the entrenched and aggressive forces of the Blindness System. When the young Jernigan became active in the organized blind movement at the national level in the early 1950’s, relations between the NFB and some of the agencies were deteriorating, and after a time resembled those of warring states. Dr. Jernigan learned his politics from the founder and then President of the Federation, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, who spoke of the Federation in 1957 as an "embattled organization."

Kenneth Jernigan, successively Second Vice President and First Vice President during the decade, led the fight in the trenches and fired up the rhetoric from the platform. His language was not the fawning persuasion of a sycophant or a supplicant. His voice rang out and spoke to the heart with a note of resolve and determination tempered by humanity that was as stirring as it was unexpected. By 1976 the resonant voice of our leader, trained and tempered by Dr. tenBroek, stirred the convention with these words:

As we make our advance and set our daily skirmish lines we come to the fight with gladness-not with cringing or fear. We come with a song on our lips and joy in our hearts, for we have seen the vision of hope and felt the power of concerted action and self-belief. In the conflict ahead we will take casualties. We know it and we are prepared for it. Whatever the price, we will pay it. Whatever the cost, we will bear it. The stakes are too high and the promise too certain to let it be otherwise. We are organized and moving forward. We will be free-and the sighted will accept us as partners and equals. We know who we are, and we will never go back. The vulture sits in the branches of a dead tree, and we know where the wings join the body. Our gaze will not waver. Our shaft will go straight to the mark, and the vulture will fall. My brothers and my sisters, the future is ours. Come! Join me on the barricades, and we will make it come true!

Dr. Jernigan’s oratory remained as stirring and forthright through the remainder of his life as it was in 1976. However, it would gain other added elements. There were at least three intended audiences for his convention speeches, then and always. Primary among them were the blind. Next came the professionals in the field of work with the blind-some who had taken up arms against the Federation and many others who had come to work cooperatively with the organized blind movement to enhance opportunity and encourage independence for the blind. And finally, there was the vast undifferentiated public-the Great American Audience-that volatile and amorphous but absolutely critical element in the urgent struggle to achieve understanding. Dr. Jernigan spoke to us all, delineating the reality that nobody can live our lives for us, that we must do it for ourselves, that we cannot do it in isolation but must find a way to welcome our sighted brothers and sisters as friends, that we must also find a way to persuade our sighted colleagues to welcome us, that equality carries with it a certain standard we must be prepared to meet, and that in the process of all of this effort we must speak and act for ourselves in an organized body which has the power and strength to gain for us the goals we seek.

In 1940, when the Federation came into being, there had only recently been an effort to create a national focus to promote the interests of the blind led by the American Foundation for the Blind. This effort was of tremendous value, but it represented the interests of the agencies established to serve the blind, not the interests of the blind themselves. Through the leadership of our founder and first President, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the blind of America came to recognize that to speak for the blind, a representative must be elected by the blind. Thus, the Federation was formed to serve the interests of the blind in 1940, and it was different from anything else dealing with blindness that had preceded it. It was not an organization speaking for the blind; it was the blind who had decided to speak for themselves.

At the outset, the agencies possessed all of the instruments of power over the unorganized blind: the workers in the sheltered workshops, the operators in the vending stands, and the employees in certain other occupations were almost completely dependent for basic needs on the goodwill and favor of the administrators who controlled the service agencies for the blind. It was the goal of the Federation to break this strangle hold and to alter the balance of power by "organizing" sheltered shop workers and others into the Federation, while at the same time promoting legislation to protect the right of the blind to organize and to be consulted-the right to be heard.

Why did the conflict exist? If the blind and those established to give them service are all working for the betterment of the blind, how can there possibly be conflict? Dr. Jernigan addressed this question repeatedly, stating emphatically that the agencies cannot speak for us-the blind. At most they can speak with us. Certain officials in the field of work with the blind had misinterpreted their role. They had formed the belief that they were caretakers for the helpless-caretakers for the mind, the body, and the spirit of the blind. When they were informed that the blind were not so helpless after all, they did not believe it, and they fought to maintain the status quo. They insisted that the blind were just as helpless as they had always imagined them to be, and they declared their intention to fight any blind person who maintained to the contrary-especially the National Federation of the Blind.

As late as the 1970’s and the first years of the 1980’s, the field of work with the blind was still characterized by strife and confrontation. But during the eighties, as the National Center for the Blind evolved and expanded, the conflicted pattern of relationships began to shift markedly in the direction of dialogue and cooperation. Officials of agencies and programs for the blind came to work more harmoniously with the organized blind movement, and there emerged a growing recognition of the community of interest shared between the blind as consumers and the agencies as providers of services designed to meet their needs.

In the last years of his life, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan devoted more and more of his energy and intellect to welding the various entities in the blindness field into a cohesive force for the advancement of the interests of blind people. Although deep-seated suspicion and misunderstanding of the blind still exist within society, there is a growing recognition by officials of rehabilitation programs for the blind that blind people are normal-that they possess the same hopes and dreams, the same quirks and foibles possessed by all other members of society. At one time a number of officials in the structure of programs to serve blind people were more of a hindrance to the blind than a help. Full integration of the blind is the dream that the Federation and Dr. Jernigan worked so diligently to achieve. He hoped that the blind of the next generation might attain this objective, and he gave us the tools to continue the work. An increasing number of people within the structure of programs for the blind have accepted his vision of the future. The striking degree of unity and harmony that characterizes the field today is a validation of that commitment and a vindication of the prophecy made by Dr. Jernigan himself as early as 1973. In a speech entitled "Blindness: Is History Against Us?" he assessed the state of the struggle and ventured a long-term prediction in these dramatic terms:

While no man can predict the future, I feel absolute confidence as to what the historians will say. They will tell of a system of governmental and private agencies established to serve the blind, which became so custodial and so repressive that reaction was inevitable. They will tell that the blind ("their time come round at last") began to acquire a new self-image, along with rising expectations, and that they determined to organize and speak for themselves. And they will tell of Jacobus tenBroek-of how he, a young college professor (blind and brilliant), stood forth to lead the movement.

They will tell how the agencies first tried to ignore us, then resented us, then feared us, and finally came to hate us-with the emotion and false logic and cruel desperation which dying systems always feel toward the new, about to replace them.

They will tell of the growth of our movement through the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, and of our civil war. They will tell how we emerged from that civil war into the ‘60’s, stronger and more vital than we had ever been; and how more and more of the agencies began to make common cause with us for the betterment of the blind.

They will also record the events of the 1970’s when the reactionaries among the agencies became even more so, and the blind of the second generation of the National Federation of the Blind stood forth to meet them. They will tell how the reactionary agencies gradually lost ground and gave way before us. They will tell of new and better agencies rising to work in partnership with the blind, and of harmony and progress as the century draws to an end. They will relate how the blind passed from second-class citizenship through a period of hostility to equality and first-class status in society. But future historians will only record those events if we make them come true. They can help us be remembered, but they cannot help us dream. That we must do for ourselves. They can give us acclaim, but not guts and courage. They can give us recognition and appreciation, but not determination or compassion or good judgment. We must either find these things for ourselves, or not have them at all.

Twenty-three years later, Dr. Jernigan returned to the theme of his earlier prophecy and announced to another convention audience (meeting in Anaheim, California, in 1996) that

in broad terms the prediction has come true. The century draws to a close, and there is unprecedented harmony between agencies and organizations of and for the blind.

As for the future, the Federation’s long-time leader expressed his confidence with these words:

I am absolutely certain of the general direction our organization will take. Our mutual faith and trust in each other will be unchanged, and all else will follow . . . . I know to the depths of my being that our shared bond of love and trust will never change and that because of it we will be unswervable in our determination and unstoppable in our progress.

And then, Dr. Jernigan uttered these memorable concluding words:

As I said in 1973, we have come a long way together in this movement. Some of us are veterans, going back to the ‘40’s; others are new recruits, fresh to the ranks. Some are young; some are old. Some are educated, others not. It makes no difference. In everything that matters we are one; we are the movement; we are the blind.

Perhaps the most profound part of Dr. Jernigan’s work occurred during the 1990’s. During that time he organized a remarkable revolution: one without violence or riot, devoid of strife or confrontation, conceived entirely in the spirit of love and understanding-it is the "revolution of the Kernel Books." At the 1996 Convention of the National Federation of the Blind, Dr. Jernigan explained the unusual character and effect of this peculiar revolution, in which the only weapons were small paperback books. He wrote: "Revolution, the dictionary tells us, is ‘sudden or momentous change.’ It is ‘activities directed toward bringing about basic changes in the socioeconomic structure, as of a minority or cultural segment of the population.’ By these standards, what we have achieved during the past five years in writing, publishing, and distributing the Kernel Books is a revolution. We have brought about a ‘sudden’ and ‘momentous change’ in attitudes about the blind, our own attitudes, and those of society. We have initiated ‘activities directed toward’ causing ‘basic changes in the socioeconomic structure of a minority, a cultural segment of the population.’ And we have done it in half a decade." He pointed out that eleven of the Kernel Books were (in 1996) already in print and that three million copies of them were in circulation around the country. "Revolution?" he asked; "from these little books? Yes, revolution. Never mind that the tone is gentle and the message nonconfrontative. The effect is felt, and basic changes are being made in the socioeconomic structure."

The basic changes that were being made extended beyond the socioeconomic structure, as Dr. Jernigan was the first to realize. This was a revolution of the heart and the mind, bringing about a transformation in the attitudes toward blindness of the general public and generating nothing less than a quantum leap in the level of understanding of what it means to be blind. During all of his adult life Dr. Jernigan devoted his energy to the mission of creating opportunity for the dispossessed-for the blind of the United States and beyond. His labors often took the form of political activism and organizational expansion, and he never flinched from danger or avoided confrontation when it was necessary. As Dr. Jernigan so frequently said: "We want no strife or confrontation, but we will do what we have to do." It is highly desirable, he told us, to avoid conflict; but it is absolutely essential to be prepared to fight for your rights if there is no other way to secure them.

Although Dr. Jernigan was always a warrior prepared to do battle, he was also a teacher, a confidant to the blind, a devoted friend. He worked for the blind of every generation, but he had a special concern for the children. He jumped rope with them, constructed paper airplanes for them, showed them how to travel with a cane, played games with them, told them stories, and inspired in them a zest for learning and adventure. Thinking out loud, he said to us at one point, "The pattern of my life is established. The pattern for the children who will come after us is yet to be determined. Though they are not our biological offspring, they are (in every meaningful sense of the word) our children-part of our family. We must build for ourselves, of course; but of more importance we must think to the future for our children. We must find a way to make it possible for them to create opportunity never known in the lives of the blind of our own generation." As he edited the Kernel Book entitled As the Twig is Bent, he was thinking of the urgent need to continue the process of building for the blind of the next generation. As the twig is bent so grows the tree.

By the latter part of the 1990’s, Dr. Jernigan could speak of "The Day After Civil Rights." That was the title of his stunning banquet address delivered at the 1997 Convention devoted, (not coincidentally), both to the phenomenon of the Kernel Books and to the need for a new comprehensive philosophy and policy of understanding. The visionary leader of the blind saw that the two elements were complementary, organically connected at the heart. The astonishing appeal of the little books was due to their honest and unpretentious narratives of everyday life as it is lived by blind persons, narratives which emphasized quite naturally the commonalties rather than the differences in the lives of blind and sighted Americans. In the humorous and poignant telling of these short anecdotes and true confessions there was, for every reader, a sense of the familiar and a hint of recognition, a shared secret, a moment of reflection, a thought to ponder, a flash of a dream remembered. The blind were heartened, cheered, and inspired; but so were the members of the public.

The little books with the large print did more than tickle the funny bone of America; they touched its heart and lifted its spirit, and they have swept away the mystery from the condition of blindness. For the millions of those who have become readers of the Kernel Books, blind men and women, blind boys and girls, can never again be easily dismissed as strangers. Through these real-life narratives they have come to be recognized as neighbors, and not just neighbors but friends.

The readers of these pages will observe that almost all of the material contained in this volume is drawn from the writings of Dr. Jernigan, composed during the 1990’s. A previous volume delineating the history of the organized blind movement in the United States entitled Walking Alone and Marching Together by Dr. Floyd Matson incorporates many of Dr. Jernigan’s outstanding addresses and thoughtful compositions composed before 1990. It would not be practical to include all or even most of what Dr. Jernigan wrote. Thus, this volume draws from the latter part of the compendium of Dr. Jernigan’s work.

Dr. Jernigan changed the lives of blind people through his example and inspiration. He changed the lives of the sighted through his wisdom and writings. That was his mission, his purpose, and his goal. Dr. Jernigan taught us to think of tomorrow. The pattern of today is set, but the pattern of tomorrow can be affected by the work of today. Plan for tomorrow, next week, next month, or the year to follow, he told us. He himself did precisely as he recommended to us. He always planned for the future! He urged us to take the long view, and we have. His work did not come to a close when he drew his last breath, for he gave us a spirit and the mechanism for building a better future. He gave us his writings and his example, and he gave us the organized blind movement. His life was filled with ceaseless activity-with writing, with speaking, with challenging, with teaching, with loving. His final message will live through the decades and be reflected in the generations to come. Believe in yourself, dream of the future, build for tomorrow, and never, ever give up! And above all else, care for one another with an abiding love which will provide the strength and the inner moral fiber to make us unstoppable and unbeatable!

Marc Maurer
Baltimore, Maryland