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Colin Low speaks at the memorial service

Colin Low

From the Editor: Colin Low is Vice Chairman of the Executive Council of the Royal National Institute for the Blind and a leader of the National Federation of the Blind of the United Kingdom. Here are his remarks from the memorial service:

By what right does somebody come from three thousand miles away to speak of someone whom you have accurately described as such a multi-dimensional figure? If I could take a minute to begin with a brief personal reminiscence—I only met Dr. Jernigan four or five times, but the magnetism and the dynamism of his personality were such that he impressed himself upon you immediately as a figure of greatness. And the openness and generosity of his spirit were such that I think you got to know a lot about him as a person and a human being quite quickly.

The last time I had the pleasure and privilege of his company was very recently, at the end of August. I had come to Baltimore to record an interview with him, but to my eternal regret, we weren't able to have that conversation because, as everyone would understand, at that time he just didn't feel strong enough for it. Notwithstanding that, he insisted on entertaining me to dinner that evening although he had to leave for an urgent doctor's appointment in the middle of it. And, although his voice was a little weaker than I was used to, his conversation sparkled nonetheless. That was another thing that he did in his last year—in his last months of life, and I was deeply moved and touched by the courtesy he did me on that evening.

I have been to only one of your conventions, but one of them is formative enough to be quite an experience in itself. In addition to that, I got to know quite a lot about your Federation quickly and on a continuing basis through Dr. Jernigan's many writings. Certainly we in the National Federation of the Blind in Britain felt through them a great affinity with your Federation and that indeed we were really part of it. We rejoiced with you through the eighties as you took increasingly confident and powerful strides to bring you to the point where you are now, a fully mature organization and a major power in the land.

So thank you for letting me come and be with you in solidarity this afternoon, with Mrs. Jernigan; with you, President Maurer; and with all of you. I come from the European Blind Union and from the National Federation of the Blind and the Royal National Institute for the Blind in England to salute the memory of a great man renowned the world over as a giant among leaders of the blind, a man of ideas, a profound thinker about blindness, and a brilliant communicator of those ideas.

The first two of my affiliations, I am sure, he would recognize as kindred spirits of his own National Federation of the Blind. The last, not being formally an organization of the blind, he might have regarded a little more warily. But through contact with us in recent years he may have come to believe that we had absorbed enough of the ethos of Federationism to be admitted to the same table. It is indeed reassuring to me to hear you talk, Mr. President, of the development of interest between blind people and those who work for them. Certainly our Director General, Ian Bruce, was most gratified by the warm welcome he received at your convention this summer.

Wherein lay Kenneth Jernigan's greatness as a leader? Of course it cannot be divorced altogether from his message and his skill in communicating it. I can't help thinking that it also had something to do with his roots. I'm not talking here of his roots in the Depression, which obviously had a formative influence on his character, but his roots in the movement of blind people, the National Federation of the Blind, which was obviously a seminal influence too. He molded the Federation, but he was very much of the Federation mold. In his introductions to the Kernel Books Dr. Jernigan was fond of saying, "We who are blind are pretty much like you. We have our share of both geniuses and jerks, but most of us are somewhere between, ordinary people living ordinary lives." There's a lot of truth in that, of course, as every blind person knows. But I can't help feeling that it errs just a little on the modest side.

My great friend Martin Milligan, who himself contributed a great deal to the sustaining ideology of blindness in Britain, was wont to observe that blind people as a group displayed estimable qualities of robustness and solidarity and determination to get the most out of life and to make the least of their difficulties that could well serve as an example to others I can't help thinking that he had a point.

If this is true elsewhere, it must be all the more true of the USA, which has the strongest organized blind movement in the world. At all events it says much for American culture and American society as well as for the Federation and its leaders that the NFB should have been able to throw up such a succession of leaders as tenBroek, Jernigan, Maurer, and others forged in the same mold. And with what leadership qualities did that mold invest them? In Jernigan's case the answer is clear: charisma— there's no other word for it (I've seen him hold that convention in the palm of his hand); the ability to motivate and inspire at the level of the rehabilitation center as well as of the convention hall; vision; clarity of purpose; boundless energy and drive; an unquenchable thirst for hard work; an invincible will; the list goes on—and others will add to it.

His gifts of communication were awe-inspiring. The convention banquet addresses were the stuff of legend. What was their secret? I can identify some of the ingredients: a piece of homespun wisdom—"It has been wisely observed that philosophy bakes no bread, but without philosophy no bread is baked"—razor-sharp analysis, a dash of humor, some merciless knock-about at the expense of the professionals, a wealth of learning, and some Olympian oratory, all rounded off with a stirring call to arms. But the precise recipe on each occasion required the magician to be personally present to weave his spell. At bottom, I think it was his ability to articulate for blind people and for the sighted the reality of what it's like to be blind and how blind people feel, as opposed to the misconceptions which abound in this area of human understanding. And for blind people he articulated their potential in a way that enabled them to realize that potential for themselves.

Nowhere did he do this better than in the Kernel Books, where he spoke directly to the common experience of ordinary people. The Kernel Books have a constant theme and a common purpose. He would say: "It is to let you know something about the details of everyday life as blind persons live it. Mostly we are not world-famous celebrities but ordinary people just like you— people who laugh and cry, work and play, hope and dream, just like you." With an image here—the hook on the doctor's door, perhaps—or an incident or anecdote there, like tapping the charcoal, he vividly brought to life the circumstances of blindness in a way which, once heard, could never be forgotten. This was where he was at his superlative best. No wonder they've sold in their millions.

Let me conclude with this. As always it was Jernigan who posed the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question: "And what do you think that future historians will say of us, of you and me? How will they deal with our movement, with the National Federation of the Blind? Will they record that we fell back into the faceless anonymity of the ages, or that we met the challenges and survived as a free people?" Jernigan's answer was clear. "History is not against us. It goes forward to the next generation as a heritage and a challenge. The past proclaims it; the present confirms it; and the future demands it."

No one can doubt the answer history will return on the life and work of Kenneth Jernigan. It stands as a heritage worthy of his predecessors, a challenge to spur his successors, and an example to inspire us all. But there is one more thing which should be said, and again his words should say it, for he seldom left us without a warning and a summons to action, but a summons that reminded us that duty is not always travail and grief and that today is not just a time of sadness and tribulation, but of celebration and rejoicing too, for a lifetime full of industry and achievement and fully lived in the service of his people, which will be remembered as long as the National Federation of the Blind is spoken of. "We stand at a critical time in the history of the blind," he would say. "If we falter or turn back, the tragedy of blindness will be great indeed. But of course we will not falter, and we will not turn back. Instead we will go forward with joy in our hearts and a song of gladness on our lips. The future is ours, and the novelists and the poets will record it. Come"—and there can hardly be a person in this hall who cannot hear him saying this to us now—"Come, join me on the barricades, and we will make it come true."