Kenneth Jernigan: the Monument and the Man

by Marc Maurer

From the Editor: President Marc Maurer delivered the following address at the opening of the memorial service for National Federation of the Blind President Emeritus Kenneth Jernigan December 5, 1998.

Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who served as President of the National Federation of the Blind for almost twenty years and as a principal leader of the Federation for much longer, changed the prospects for blind people in the United States and the world. His influence is felt by tens of thousands who know of his life and work and by many others who have never heard his name. And although he himself was blind and one of the most outstanding leaders of the blind of the twentieth century, he also taught the sighted. His life is the story and the symbol of the organized blind movement he loved and nurtured and built with every ounce of his strength and being. Without his effort the National Federation of the Blind could not have possessed the scope and depth that we have come to expect and take for granted. To speak of the Federation without the persuasive power of Dr. Jernigan is impossible, and to speak of Dr. Jernigan without the broad range of activities of the Federation is equally inconceivable. He and the Federation are one—the man and the organization he built.

Who was this man that we have come to honor and remember? Some have thought of him as a builder with the capacity to dream of a structure and cause it to be erected of brick and wood and steel and stone. Some have thought of him as a writer with the ability to express a thought on paper with elegance and incisiveness. Some have thought of him as a logician with the force to illuminate complex ideas in debate. Some have thought of him as a teacher who could nurture the quest for knowledge. Some have thought of him as a political leader who could galvanize others to action. Some have thought of him as a caring human being who could touch the heart of a five-year-old girl, a twenty-eight-year-old student, or a seventy-eight-year-old grandmother with equal ease. Some have thought of him as a speaker with a vibrant voice that could stir the spirit. And some have thought of him as an implacable adversary of injustice and a stalwart champion of the underdog. But those who knew him best thought of him as a close and abiding friend. He would certainly give us advice if he thought we needed it, but he would also give us help to make the plans he recommended come true. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan was not a one-dimensional man. He was all that we remember—and more than we can write.

Kenneth Jernigan was born on November 13, 1926, in Detroit. Shortly after his birth the Jernigans moved back to their farm in Tennessee, where young Jernigan was raised. Blind from birth, his training on the farm was not calculated to instill confidence or to prepare him to undertake the challenges of administering programs or teaching others.

Photo of two boys with their dog
Lloyd and Kenneth Jernigan with
their dog Wag in the early 1930's

The Jernigan house consisted of four rooms. There were no electricity, no radio, no telephone, no reading material (except the Bible), and no indoor plumbing. Most boys were expected to help with the farm work, attending to chores in the barn and working in the fields. When they were not assisting with family obligations, they could fish or roam the woods. This was not true for Kenneth Jernigan. He was blind and not permitted off the front porch.

This young blind boy discovered early that blindness demanded modifications of customary procedures. Visiting neighbors on Sunday was a tradition in the Tennessee of those days. Those who were to make a visit would walk or (if the distance was too great) climb into the wagon and drive to the neighboring farm. Young Jernigan learned early that he was not welcome to play with the other girls and boys during these visits. Because he was blind, he was expected to sit with the grown-ups. If he found himself in need of going to the bathroom, he would have to ask one of the older men to show him the way to the outhouse, which was an unwelcome interruption to the grown-up conversation. So he planned ahead. The day before the visit he began to restrict his intake of water. The visits to the outhouse were no longer required, and the interruptions for the grown-ups came to an end. But for Kenneth Jernigan these outings meant enforced isolation and a full bladder.

Despite the restrictions, young Jernigan was expected to help with household chores. One of these was sausage-making. A hand-operated meat grinder was fastened to a plank set upon two chairs. Kenneth Jernigan's job was to hold down one end of the plank by sitting on it. Sometimes he was permitted to turn the crank on the grinder. He was also expected to churn butter—a chore he thought exceedingly dull. He tried to persuade his mother to let him add hot water to the cream, which speeds the process, but she refused.

Kenneth Jernigan's parents loved him deeply, but they thought that blindness and helplessness were synonymous, and this young blind boy knew nothing to counterbalance the assessment.

bm990108.jpg (7781 bytes)
Kenneth Jernigan as a young man
doing a handstand

Before he reached the age of seven, Jernigan was sent to the Tennessee School for the Blind, and he found it a liberating experience. There were children from many parts of the state; there were classes to stimulate the mind and challenge the imagination; there were books to read; and there was a world much larger than four rooms and a front porch. Of primary importance to this child with an inquiring mind were the books. Even at this tender age young Jernigan knew that he needed to find some method for breaking out of the isolation and boredom of a four-room farmhouse. He decided to stuff his mind with everything he could learn from books. He hoped to use this learning to help him through college, and he read voraciously.

Still the messages of inferiority did not stop. When Jernigan had reached high-school age, he asked his father to permit him to join the other men in the fields, who were making hay. The refusal was direct and unequivocal. A blind worker (even a strong and husky one) was not wanted in the hay fields. So Jernigan was left to his own devices, and he established a furniture business on the farm, making tables and lamps from materials close at hand. To fashion the legs of these tables, Jernigan collected sewing spools and bolted them together. The result was a table leg that appeared to have been turned on a lathe with extensive and expert handwork. The simplicity and elegance of the design caused his furniture to be in constant demand. And, incidentally, the profits were greater than he could have received for the work in the hay fields.

When it came time for college, Jernigan expressed his wish to become a lawyer. His rehabilitation counselor told him it could not be done and insisted that he study something else. "You can go to college and study law if you want to," said the counselor, "but you'll pay for it yourself. If you study something else, we'll help you with the costs." Jernigan didn't have any money, so he became a scholar in English and education, and the world lost a great lawyer but gained a magnificent teacher.

During the time that he spent at college, Jernigan continued in business. He tutored students, typed papers, and sold candy and other products to students on campus. He also wrote for the school newspaper and created a literary magazine.

When he had finished college, Jernigan (thinking about the future for blind children) concluded that they must have an example to follow if they were to achieve success—they must have role models. In all humility he thought that he could provide encouragement for the students at the school. When he was offered a job as a teacher of blind children, he took it, and with this decision there began a half-century of imaginative work to stimulate, to inspire, to challenge, and to direct blind people toward a brighter future.

In 1949 Dr. Jernigan joined the National Federation of the Blind because he recognized that he could not achieve the ambitious objective to change prospects for the blind without the help of others. To improve education for blind children, to persuade the rehabilitation agency in Tennessee to be more responsive to the blind, and to enhance employment opportunities for blind people within the state—these were the achievements Jernigan was hoping to reach. Even though he was a member of the Tennessee affiliate of the Federation, Dr. Jernigan thought there was no point in belonging to or fooling with a national organization of the blind. However, in 1952, when he came to the convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Nashville, he met its dynamic President, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, and things changed. Dr. Jernigan had been in the convention hall for only a few minutes when he said to himself, "I have been wrong. The National Convention of the Federation is where the action is, and I intend to be part of it."

bm990109.jpg (6286 bytes)
Dr. Jernigan in a classroom at the
Iowa Commission for the Blind in 1968

Dr. Jernigan's efforts in organizing the 1952 Convention of the National Federation of the Blind are among the most remarkable in our history. Governor Gordon Browning of Tennessee addressed the convention banquet and introduced the Federation's President, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek. Governor Browning's address to the banquet and the speech of Dr. tenBroek were carried live on WSM, one of the most powerful radio stations in the United States. In addition, the NBC network broadcast a nationwide address by Dr. tenBroek. All of these events were arranged by Dr. Jernigan. The National Convention was impressed by the skill of this young man, and it elected him to the Board of Directors. But perhaps the most profound change that took place at the 1952 convention was in the heart and the mind of Dr. Jernigan himself. He had observed the potential of self-organization on a national basis, and he had become committed to strengthening this vehicle for collective action.

Within a year after Dr. Jernigan attended his first National Convention, he faced a crisis in Tennessee. He learned that one of the teachers at the School for the Blind had been taking liberties with some of the high school girls, had been drinking on the job, and had been verbally and physically abusive to some of the younger boys—threatening them and hitting them in the mouth with his fist. The students involved had reported the incidents to the principal and had been confined to their rooms for a week. Dr. Jernigan took the matter to the school board and demanded that the abusive teacher be dismissed from employment and that the superintendent, who had known about the actions and condoned them, also be disciplined. When the school year came to a close, the superintendent was fired; the abusive teacher was fired; and Dr. Jernigan was fired for (as the school board put it) failing to be loyal to his employer.

Dr. Jernigan wondered what to do. He needed a job, and he was thinking about buying a gas station or taking up some other occupation. Then, in a conversation with Dr. tenBroek, he learned something else about the Federation. An opening for an instructor existed at the California Orientation Center for the Blind. If Dr. Jernigan wanted the job, Dr. tenBroek thought he might be able to secure the post. So in 1953 Dr. Jernigan moved to California and taught at the California Orientation Center.

During this same period he began to travel extensively for the Federation, building and strengthening state affiliates and local chapters. Every moment of vacation was dedicated to Federation work. In one report to President tenBroek, Dr. Jernigan summarized travels on behalf of the Federation over an eleven-day period into Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. That year, 1956, Dr. Jernigan organized affiliates in nine states.

In those early years Dr. tenBroek was the thinker and dreamer, and Dr. Jernigan was the political leader, the organizer, and the builder. Dr. tenBroek was the founder, and Dr. Jernigan was the committed advocate and assistant.

In late 1957 Dr. tenBroek and Dr. Jernigan discussed the needs of the Federation and planned for the future. Either Dr. Jernigan would establish himself in a Congressional district and run for Congress, or he would seek a position as the director of an agency for the blind. The worst program for the blind in America existed in the state of Iowa, and its directorship was available. The Board of the Iowa Commission for the Blind consisted of three people. By doing a little research, Dr. Jernigan discovered that the Chairman of the Commission Board had transcribed a college textbook for him. He called her to say that he was coming through Des Moines, and he wondered if he might be able to talk with her. He was, indeed, coming through Des Moines. He was coming to visit her. Within a few hours of their meeting the Commission Board Chairman disclosed to Dr. Jernigan that an opening existed for the directorship. They discussed the matter, and she agreed to recommend him for the job.

There were two other members on the Commission Board. One of these was the Superintendent of the School for the Blind. Dr. Jernigan learned that he was in a meeting in Jacksonville, Illinois. He caught a plane to Jacksonville. He would have chartered one if he could not have found another way to make the trip. When the superintendent came out of his meeting, Dr. Jernigan met him at the door. Dr. Jernigan learned that the man liked to drink beer. Sometime later in the evening the matter was decided. In the spring of 1958 Dr. Jernigan accepted the directorship of the Iowa Commission for the Blind.

bm990110.jpg (7125 bytes)
Dr. Jernigan walks down the sidewalk
in front of the Commission for the
Blind building in Des Moines, in 1972

When Dr. Jernigan arrived in the state of Iowa in 1958, the Commission for the Blind was housed in three rooms of a condemned building that had once been an elementary school. The entire annual budget for the Commission was $35,000. There were few programs and only a tiny number of staff members.

Within ten years the Iowa Commission for the Blind was recognized as the most effective program training blind people in the United States. In 1968 Dr. Jernigan received a Presidential citation from Lyndon Johnson. The executive director of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped said of his work at the Iowa Commission for the Blind, "If a person must be blind, it is better to be blind in Iowa than anywhere else in the nation or in the world." At the time of this presentation the Commission for the Blind was housed in a seven-story building. It had an annual budget of several million dollars and well over a hundred employees. Blind people in Iowa were becoming more productive than any other group of blind people ever before in history. Dr. Jernigan's students became electrical engineers, farmers, insurance executives, factory workers, lawyers, and teachers.

The largest library for the blind in the world came into being under the directorship of Dr. Jernigan. At the School for the Blind in Tennessee he had learned the value of reading. The Iowa program provided more books on more subjects to more blind people than any other library. In 1967 the American Library Association honored this achievement by giving to Dr. Jernigan the Francis Joseph Campbell Award.

Dr. Jernigan became President of the National Federation of the Blind in 1968, when Dr. tenBroek died. That year Dr. Jernigan was approached by senior officials of the Democratic party in the state of Iowa and asked to run on the Democratic ticket for the office of State Treasurer. The same spring he was approached by members of the Republican party and asked to run for statewide office on their ticket. The Convention of the Federation took place in Des Moines, and Dr. Jernigan had a decision to make. He could not serve effectively as President of the National Federation of the Blind and engage in a demanding political campaign with a political career as its objective. Dr. tenBroek had died in March, and Dr. Jernigan must either accept the obligations to serve the Federation or seek political office. As we all know, he chose the Federation. However, we have speculated about what would have happened if he had taken the other road.

It is almost certain that he would have won the race for State Treasurer. Two years later he would have run on the Democratic ticket for the office of Governor. In that election there were major divisions in the Republican party, and the Republican candidate won by a very narrow margin. Dr. Jernigan's name recognition in the state was better than almost anybody else's, and we believe he would have won. In 1972, two years after the gubernatorial election, he would probably have run for the United States Senate. In that year the Republican Senatorial candidate was defeated by a weak and unknown opponent. It is quite probable that Dr. Jernigan would have won. If he had become a member of the United States Senate, it is interesting to consider what this might have meant for the blind of America. However, he chose to offer his talent, his commitment, and his energy to the National Federation of the Blind; and the result is evident for all to observe.

Dr. Jernigan continued to be the full-time director of the Commission for the Blind, and he served as the full-time unpaid President of the Federation. His very success in the state of Iowa made him a target for the envious. Blind people in other states said to rehabilitation officials, "If rehabilitation can be successful in Iowa, why is it so bad where we live?" The answers rehabilitation officials gave were never satisfactory, and implicit in the question is continuing conflict between programs for the blind and the individuals they were established to serve. Some of the less effective administrators of programs for the blind resented the success in Iowa and refused to regard the blind as equal partners in the effort to achieve independence.

The Federation deliberately established itself as a watchdog over programs for the blind, and administrators who failed to measure up resented it. These administrators paid blind workers less than the minimum wage, placed them in substandard working conditions, forced them to use broken equipment, and refused to listen to the protests of blind employees. The confrontation was bitter and long-lasting.

The traditional attitude of a few administrators of programs for the blind was that they should be regarded as benevolent caretakers for the blind. They thought of the blind who criticized them as ungrateful upstarts. Who were the members of the National Federation of the Blind to challenge their wisdom and tell them how to operate their own agencies? However, we in the National Federation of the Blind are not prepared to abandon our brothers and sisters. Dr. Jernigan, working through the Federation, organized the workers and taught them to insist upon the right to be treated with fairness in the workplace. It was not the first time the Federation and certain officials of programs for the blind had met as adversaries, but as the success of the Federation and of the Commission for the Blind in Iowa increased, the conflict also reached a crescendo. The Federation was having a greater impact than such officials had believed was possible, and they were afraid.

As a result a small group of disgruntled individuals from service programs for the blind decided to attack the President of the Federation. These people made contact with the United States attorney in Iowa, who wanted to become governor. She opened an investigation. A review of the documents which were uncovered later under Freedom of Information Act requests demonstrates that the charges never had any basis beyond the would-be gubernatorial candidate's effort to smear Dr. Jernigan to further her own election campaign. Those who had felt their positions threatened by Dr. Jernigan's forward-looking ideas and programs were momentarily gleeful. But the members of the Federation, who knew our President and loved him, closed ranks behind him with never a doubt about the outcome.

In the midst of this attack we in the National Federation of the Blind were in the process of achieving a cherished ambition; we acquired a building to serve as the National Center for the Blind. This center began as a partially abandoned light manufacturing building with scaling brick; broken windows; a leaky roof; and infestations of critters such as bats, pigeons, and smaller beasts. Dr. Jernigan looked at the structure and said it was just the place. He showed us through and told us how it would be. "Here is the conference room," he said. "This is my office; here is the kitchen; and this will be for accounting," he told us. At the time there were columns in the building to support the roof, but there were no walls and no furnishings of any kind. Despite our misgivings we believed in the imagination of our President, and we were grateful for our new home and looking forward to the remodeling which would give us the offices, conference rooms, and other facilities we needed.

bm990111.jpg (5050 bytes)
The first floor of the Johnson Street wing before it
was transformed into the Materials Center

During the first year that we occupied the Center, we heated it with a steam boiler that demanded 87,000 gallons of oil. By the next winter oil prices had more than doubled, and we began to seek more efficient ways to keep warm. This required another round of remodeling, and we have been remodeling ever since.

At the end of 1997 Dr. Jernigan imagined at the National Center for the Blind a system of outdoor decks which was completed in July of 1998. This is the last piece of remodeling that he himself examined. However, it is not the last he planned. Perhaps the most ambitious building project of Dr. Jernigan's life is the structure we are planning, which will house meeting space, classrooms, parking facilities, and a research library on blindness and human rights. The National Research and Training Institute for the Blind will be the only facility of its kind anywhere in the world. We plan to bring Dr. Jernigan's architectural design into being within the first years of the twenty-first century.

The accelerated growth of the Federation through the 1980's and the 1990's demonstrates Dr. Jernigan's wisdom in designing this new facility. In the mid-1980's, under Dr. Jernigan's leadership, we established training centers for the blind, modeled after the center established in Iowa. These centers in Louisiana, Colorado, and Minnesota have changed expectations for the rehabilitation of blind clients in all parts of the United States.

In the 1990's Dr. Jernigan dreamed of a comprehensive center which would house all of the technological devices for the blind in existence. On the fiftieth birthday of the National Federation of the Blind, the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind came into being. With the new emphasis on technology Dr. Jernigan imagined the NEWSLINE for the BlindŽ Network, which provides the text of more than twenty newspapers to blind individuals on a daily basis.

bm990112.jpg (5536 bytes)
Dr.Jernigan in 1986

However, the most profound effort of this brilliant man during the 1990's was the conception of the Kernel Books, small volumes containing firsthand accounts by blind people of the experiences of their daily lives. These books tell in a simple and unpretentious manner how it is to be blind—and, more particularly, how it is not. They describe the reality, the frustration, the dreams, the hopes, and the techniques used by the blind. They have helped to reshape the thinking of the public at large about the reality of blindness, and in doing so, they have given greater opportunity.

At the end of the 1970's, the field of work with the blind was characterized by strife and confrontation. During the 1980's, as the National Center for the Blind expanded and developed, patterns changed. Increasingly, officials of agencies and programs for the blind came to work more harmoniously with the organized blind movement, and there existed an increasing recognition of the community of interest shared between the blind and programs to serve their needs. In the final decade of his life, Dr. Jernigan devoted an increasingly substantial part of his time and energy toward welding the various entities in the blindness field into a cohesive force for the advancement of the interests of blind people. The unity and harmony we have today is, in no small way, a reflection of that work.

Dr. Jernigan predicted the change in emphasis in a speech delivered in 1973 entitled "Blindness: Is History Against Us?" In part he said:

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.

bm990113.jpg (5941 bytes)
Dr. and Mrs. Jernigan outside the Tarzana, California,
office of the American Action Fund for Blind
Children and Adults

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 NFB stood forth to meet them. They will talk of how these agencies...tried to control all work with the blind, and our lives. 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 these 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.

That is what Dr. Jernigan said in 1973, and he reminded us of the predictions he made twenty-three years later at our 1996 convention in Anaheim, California, just four years before the century would come to its close. He reflected upon the prediction of 1973 and speculated about the Federation in the years to come. As he said in 1996:

Dr. Jernigan sits at a table listening to a speaker
Dr. Jernigan sits in a characteristic position
as he listens to a speaker in 1996.

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. But what about the future? What will our situation be like when we meet twenty-three years from now in 2019?

By then the members of the first generation of the movement will most certainly be gone, and so will many of those of the second. Even the numbers of the third generation will be thinning, and the fourth generation will be coming into dominance. And the fifth generation will be knocking at the door. The Federation will be seventy-nine years old, approaching the end of its first century.

So what will the movement be like when we meet in 2019? The past five years have taught me that there will be undreamed-of surprises, for no one could possibly have foreseen the two most important events of this decade—the establishment of the NEWSLINEŽ Network and the coming of the Kernel Books. But if I am not sure of specifics, 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 never come into the convention hall without a lift of spirit and a surge of joy, for 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.

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.

This is what Dr. Jernigan said in 1996, and it is as true today as it was then.

Through all the changes that have made the Federation what it is, one fundamental element has remained. Dr. tenBroek, as the founder of the movement, spoke of the essence of the Federation. Dr. Jernigan, the organizer of blind Americans and the builder of our Federation, reiterated the theme. We of the National Federation of the Blind reflect the dream that these great leaders have brought to us. We comprehend what must be done, and we rejoice in the challenges ahead. We know of the need for joint action, for shared commitment, and for the willingness to work.

bm990115.jpg (7286 bytes)
Dr. Jernigan enjoys Thanksgiving dinner in1997 with Diana Marie
standing beside him and Mrs. Jernigan behind them.

A monument is a way to remember. It is a record in writing, in stone, or in some other permanent form of a great event, a great convocation, or a great man. But the traditional definition of a "monument" neglects a method of recording which we in the National Federation of the Blind can describe with intimacy. Dr. Jernigan created a body of literature within the National Federation of the Blind which speaks of a way of thinking, a way of living, and a way of being human. He constructed, from his own imagination, the National Center for the Blind, which has a massiveness, a beauty, a functionality, and a purpose that are unmistakable. But he has not written only with Braille, with ink, and with other recorded characters. He has not written only with mortar, with brick, and with stone. He has also written in the language of the spirit reflected in the human heart; he has written in the lives of us all. His monument may be perceived in the way we think and the way we act.

When he came to the National Federation of the Blind, we were already a going concern. When he drew his last breath, the organization had achieved a level of impact on the lives of the present generation and on the generations to come which was unpredictable and unimaginable. Our organization may change, but our purpose will not. The incidents along the path of our lives may differ, but the direction is established and unwavering. The demands on our time, our resources, and our imagination will be great, but Dr. Jernigan has given us the example to follow, and we will not turn back.

We will take a leaf from the book of the life he lived so well. Not only will we continue to do the work that he cherished, but we will teach others to do the same. The complex spirit of the Federation which combines the characteristics of force and love, of generosity and determination, and of imaginative dreams and demanding self-discipline will pass from this generation to the next and keep the movement alive. This is the legacy of the man. This is the monument which will forever tell his story and reflect his life. It is written in the National Federation of the Blind.