Photo of Mariyam Cenmentwala
Mariyam Cenmentwala

Mariyam Cementwala

From the Editor: Ms. Cementwala wrote this letter to Dr. Jernigan a few weeks before his death.

Dear Dr. Jernigan,

My name is Mariyam Cementwala. You may or may not recall, but I was fortunate enough to meet you at the 1997 Convention in New Orleans as a member of the 1997 Scholarship Class. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have met you and to have heard your message to us in "The Day After Civil Rights" in person, but I believe, like many younger members of the Federation, I regret not having the opportunity to know you better and to learn from you in person. You leave us a legacy in your speeches and written words which will transcend the history of the blind civil rights movement.

I told a friend and fellow scholarship winner that I should and would write you this letter, and the person, also eager to write to you, said to me, "But what do you say to a dying man?" Many of us (young and old) don't know what to say, Sir. I know that the five o'clock scholarship meeting at the National Convention will never be the same. Saying that we are sorry just doesn't cut it—and I believe it is a phrase you probably don't want to hear. We are baffled at your strength and inspired by your achievements. But I consider your greatest achievement not to be getting a particular law passed so that we as blind people can be assured that the goal of first-class citizenship is within reach. Your exemplary devotion to fighting for your and our right to be considered the equal of our sighted counterparts is not what I consider your greatest achievement. Your work in founding an organization—the largest organization in this country of blind people fighting for themselves—which carries in it a positive philosophy of blindness is not what I consider your greatest achievement. Your greatest achievement isn't even, in my opinion, the fact that you have touched and changed so many lives of both blind and sighted people for the better.

You, Sir, have achieved what many of us crave to achieve at the time of death—the comfort to die in peace. Today you can go forth into a new realm—whatever the mystery of death may be, knowing that because of your life, because of your work, the world is a better place and the Federation is in great hands. You can, as we all hope to die at our time, "rest in peace," and I don't know of any greater achievement than peace in death. You've worked for the cause of blindness and the betterment of the lives of blind people all your life—that goal has been your passion and your devotion, and today—before you die—you see and reap the fruits of your labor. Some people work all of their lives and never see any results. Many writers and artists and poets created masterful works and never knew the value of what they had done, and they died miserably and unhappily. You, Sir, helped create an organization, a philosophy, and a family; and today you see what it is and what it has the potential to be; and you know that you have created a masterpiece. I hope that knowledge brings you peace. Although I realize that your final days among us may be painful, I pray they are happy ones. Our prayers (and I say "our" because many of us who may not have written or spoken to you because of not knowing what to say still do keep you in our thoughts) are always with you. Your legacy transcends your lifetime, and your work will not go unfinished.

My great-grandfather loved Longfellow, and right now, the words he used to recite to me ring true in my mind. Longfellow wrote in "A Psalm of Life":

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time.

I don't know of anyone else that I've ever met in my life who has inscribed by his or her deeds and achievements his or her footprints on the sands of time the way you have, and for that we are all indebted to you. I am sorry that the blind civil rights movement is losing a pioneer; but, God willing, new pioneers will and must now rise to the occasion—and rest assured, Sir, we will.


Mariyam A. Cementwala