Blindness: The Lessons of History

An Address Delivered By Kenneth Jernigan
President, National Federation of the Blind
At the Banquet of the Annual Convention
Minneapolis, July 3, 1980

Napoleon, in one of his more expansive moments, is said to have quipped: "History is merely a legend agreed upon." Queen Elizabeth I, reportedly squelched Mary Queen of Scots with the regal comment: "No, history will not vindicate you, for I will write it." In other words, according to this view, history is only a myth and a fable.

But there are those who think otherwise. A time-honored cliche proclaims, with almost mystic authority: "History repeats itself, and those who do not learn it are doomed to relive it." The very qualities which make this pronouncement so attractive are also the ones which make it so dangerous as a standard of conduct. Its slick phraseology and apparent logic divert attention from its oversimplification. History does, indeed, repeat itself—but never precisely, and never exactly. There is always a new twist, a different nuance, an added element. For one thing, the past event itself (the one which is currently in the process of being repeated) is now a factor. Its former occurrence is part of the pattern. It has left its mark and skewed the picture. Those who fail to recognize this truth can never effectively learn the lessons of history. History can give us a sense of heritage and broaden our perspective; it can help us understand and cope with the present; and it can assist us in predicting the future.

Tonight (in July of 1980) we stand at the threshold of the fifth decade of our organization. As we look back to the past and call up our heritage so that we may deal with the present and plan for the future, let us bear in mind what the poet Tennyson said in the middle of the nineteenth century: "I am a part of all that I have met." Let us also remember that history has its cycles, its not quite repetitions, and its patterns and lessons for those who can read and understand.

When the blind came to organize in 1940, the situation was as bleak as it could possibly be. It was bright enough to create hope and dark enough to make that hope seem impossible. Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the brilliant scholar and constitutional lawyer who founded our movement and led it for the first quarter century, summed up the early years as only he could have done it:

The paramount problems of our first decade, the 1940's, [he said] were not so much qualitative as quantitative: we had the philosophy and the programs, but we lacked the membership and the means. The workers were few and the cupboard was bare.

Each month as we received our none too bountiful salary as a young instructor at the University of Chicago Law School, Hazel and I would distribute it among the necessaries of life: food, clothing, rent, Federation stamps, mimeograph paper, ink, and other supplies. So did we share our one-room apartment. The mimeograph paper took far more space in our closet than did our clothes. We had to move the mimeograph machine before we could let down the wall bed to retire at night. If on a Sunday we walked along Chicago's lake front for an hour, four or five fewer letters were written, dropping our output for that day to fewer than twenty-five.

The decade of the forties was a time of building: and build we did, from a scattering of seven state affiliates at our first convention to more than four times that number in 1950. In the decade of the forties we proved our organizational capacity, established our representative character, initiated legislative programs on the state and national levels, and spoke with the authority and voice of the blind speaking for themselves.1

This is the way Dr. tenBroek summed up the first decade. The second decade, the 1950's, was a time of both triumph and trouble. It began with hope and momentum. It ended with internal strife and a civil war. By the mid fifties we had forty-seven state affiliates, money in the treasury, and power in the halls of Congress. In the fifties we established our magazine, the Braille Monitor, and began to outline to ourselves and to others the distinctive nature of what we were and what we intended to be. By the end of the decade we were so divided and demoralized that our very existence as a continuing and viable movement seemed highly doubtful.

Dr. tenBroek recognized, as did the rest of us in that corps of leaders he trained in the fifties, that it was no mere accident or coincidence that our growing independence and influence were followed by furious attacks from without by the agencies, and defections and strife from within by people who had been our colleagues in the movement. The governmental and private agencies (the American Foundation for the Blind, the sheltered shops, and the rehabilitation and social work establishment) had money and position and prestige. They used these resources lavishly—not as instruments to aid the blind but as weapons to fight us and to protect their vested interests. They intimidated, offered jobs and positions to our potential leaders, promised services and rewards, threatened reprisals, and did everything else in their power to break our spirit and crush our determination. They complained to the post office and tried to discredit our mailings and fund appeals. They exploited the vulnerability of blind vendors and sheltered shop workers. They coerced and promised and rewarded. The purpose was clear: It was nothing less than the complete and total destruction of the National Federation of the Blind. In the face of such pressure it is not surprising that strains developed from within—that what might, in normal times, have been minor problems of thwarted ambition or temperamental difference became major conflict and civil war.

That first tide of Federationism and independence (which, during the fifties, lapped higher and higher up the walls of the agency establishment and the bastions of custodialism and exclusion) fell back upon itself at the end of the decade, spent and exhausted.

But the Federation did not die. The movement did not disintegrate. Too much was at stake. Too many lives had been touched. The blind had, for the first time in their existence, sensed the possibility of first-class status—and they would simply not be denied. We knew (all of us—not just the leaders but also the rank-and-file: the old, the young; the educated, the uneducated—everyone of us) that what we had so painfully achieved must not be surrendered, that self-organization (once lost) might not come again for a generation or a century. Those of us who were left in the movement closed ranks, fought where we could, encouraged each other, remembered our heritage, and marched toward the future. We understood from first-hand experience what the black demonstrators meant when they surrounded the factory gates and shouted with mingled hope and desperation:

“I go to my grave.
Before I be a slave.”

The decade of the sixties was almost the exact reverse of the fifties. It began in despair and ended in triumph. The Federation drew itself together, shook off the civil war, and began to rebuild. It was during the sixties that we lost our great leader, Dr. tenBroek, but he had done his work well. The progress continued. By the end of the decade we were bigger, stronger, better financed, and more united than we had ever been.

Perhaps the sixties can best be capsulized by the opening verse of our Battle Song, which was composed in 1964. It is known by every Federationist:

“Blind eyes have seen the vision of the Federation way; New White Cane legislation brings the dawn of a new day; Right of the blind to organize is truly here to stay; Our cause goes marching on.”

And our cause did go marching on, swinging into the seventies. And what a decade it was! At the beginning of the seventies we were saying to the world, "We know who we are"; and by the end we were confidently adding, "And we will never go back!" In the seventies the tide of Federationism rose higher than it had ever reached before—far beyond the peak of the fifties. It was during this decade that we completed the transition from a scattered confederacy to a single, united national movement—powerful, self-assured, and full of destiny. We knew that whatever happened to the blind in the years ahead, the responsibility was ours. Our future, for the first time in history, was in our own hands. Despite the odds, we could do with it what we would. If we had the intelligence and the guts, we could win first-class status and the full rights of citizenship. We did not shrink from the challenge. We welcomed it. In fact, we demanded it. Our declaration of independence and purpose left no doubt as to the course we intended to follow. "We want no strife or confrontation," we said, "but we will do what we have to do. We are simply no longer willing to be second-class citizens. They tell us that there is no discrimination and that the blind are not a minority; but we know who we are, and we will never go back!"

More and more in the seventies we discovered the truth about our heritage and history, and drew strength and pride from what we learned. Our annual conventions were the largest meetings of blind persons ever held anywhere in the world, and (with affiliates in every state in the nation) we came universally to be recognized as the strongest force in the field of work with the blind.

Then, the cycles of history began to assume familiar patterns. Superficially viewed, it was a second run of the 1950's. As our voice grew louder and our strength increased, so did the antagonism and fear on the part of the custodial agencies. As early as the mid 1960's, there were hints and signs of what was to come. The American Foundation for the Blind, seeing its influence diminishing, undertook a new tactic to tighten its loosening grip on the lives of the blind. It announced that it was establishing a so-called "independent" accrediting system for all groups doing work with the blind. As a first step, the Foundation appointed what it called the Commission on Standards and Accreditation of Services for the Blind (COMSTAC). The Commission was to hold meetings, appoint subcommittees, and arrive at a "consen- sus" for the entire field. Certain blind people (mostly agency officials or persons who were, as the saying goes, "unaffiliated" and, therefore, largely uninformed) were brought to the meetings; but tight control was carefully maintained.

When COMSTAC had finished its work and written its documents, it appointed NAC (the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped). The accreditation was, of course, to be purely voluntary and altogether impartial. The American Foundation for the Blind provided NAC's first Executive Director, gave most of the money, prepared to control our lives for at least the rest of the century, declared the whole process democratic, and said it was all very "professional"—as, indeed, in a way it was.

By the middle of the seventies it was clear that the principal issues of the fifties were again to be put to the test. It was the old question: Did we have the right to run our own lives, or did the agencies have the right to do it for us? As the decade advanced, the struggle exceeded in bitterness anything which had ever before been seen in the field of work with the blind. Many of the agencies worked with us and shared our aspirations, but others (the reactionary custodians in the American Foundation-NAC combine) abandoned all but the shallowest pretense of dignity and so-called "professionalism" and tried by brute force to beat the blind into line. Especially did they concentrate their hatred upon the National Federation of the Blind and its leaders.

But the 1970's were not the 1950's, and 1980 is not 1960. The custodial agencies we face today are not the agencies of twenty years ago, nor are we the blind of that generation. We are stronger and more knowledgeable than we were then, and the agencies which oppose us (of course, many do not) are more desperate, more frightened, and more shaken in their confidence. Even the most reactionary are now forced to give at least lip service to consumer participation and the rights of the blind.

1960 and 1980 have many similarities, but they also have distinct and significant differences. For one thing, the forces which oppose us today have (probably because of our greater strength and their greater desperation) combined in a closer alliance than was the case twenty years ago. Led by the American Foundation for the Blind, this alliance consists of NAC; our break-away 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.

If what I say seems exaggerated, consider a prime example right here in this city where we are meeting. Consider the Minneapolis Society for the Blind and its President, Dick Johnstone. The Minneapolis Society for the Blind accepts federal and state funds and solicits charitable contributions from the public-at-large-all in the name of helping the blind. Mr. Johnstone (the Society's President) supposedly serves without any compensation whatsoever, purely as a matter of public service and civic duty. Yet, last fall at the NAC meeting in Oklahoma City Mr. Johnstone made a speech about the National Federation of the Blind (the largest organization of blind people in this country—a group one would think he would particularly love and cherish since his purpose is to help the blind and promote our interests). Here are some of the things Mr. Johnstone said:

All NAC needs now is a few more teeth—and the money to apply them. Money can come to NAC—the same way it was lost: with pressure! ... NAC has a policy right now, in hand, ready to go. They can help you in any problems with the NFB without board action. Dr. Bleeker [NAC's Executive Director] has that authority, right now, unlike other agencies who have had to fiddle around and go to their boards. Believe me, the Minneapolis Society for the Blind is going to have a policy the same way: any help you need, you'll get it out of us ... Anything we needed [from NAC] we got ... One thing we did learn, and we have researched this a little; and I hope you will, too, to prove it to yourselves: fight! ... Negotiate? Never! ... The only thing the National Federation of the Blind respects is strength. The power is with us right now, if we will use our heads and use it. If we unite and help one another, as you united to help us, we can't lose ... It's time we go on the offensive, quit hiding our heads in the sand ... Programs and agencies banding together in strength can only secure success for NAC and all other legitimate agencies ... The National Federation of the Blind is going to come back and fight harder than ever, now. The pressure is on us, the legitimate blind, to counter the new attacks that are sure to come ...

How does one account for this bitter tirade? Is this the talk of a dedicated volunteer working devotedly for a "professional" service agency, which has only the well-being of the blind at heart? And what does he mean by the "legitimate blind?" Is Mr. Johnstone (in addition to damning our morals and denying our right to exist) also questioning our paternity? This is not the language of service and love, but of slander and war. It smacks of dark alleys, blackjacks, and hoodlumism. Why?

Perhaps the answer is not so difficult after all. Possibly there is a perfectly plausible explanation, one which may explain not only the conduct of Mr. Johnstone and the Minneapolis Society for the Blind but also the behavior of many of the others who attack and condemn us with such spleen and irrational hatred.

First, let us consider Mr. Johnstone personally—this dedicated, unpaid volunteer. He has been President of the Minneapolis Society for the Blind for many years. The Minneapolis Daily American in its June 2, 1972, edition carried an article headlined: "Charity Group Refuses To Talk/Blind Are Being Kept In The Dark/President Of Non-Profit Society Given Whopping Contract." The article says in part:

The Minneapolis Society for the Blind has refused to answer questions regarding bids on a federally assisted construction project.

The question arose when the Daily American learned that Richard Johnstone, president of the Society, also is president of the South Side Plumbing and Heating Company, which has the mechanical contract on the project ...

Frank A. Church, a U.S. official in the Chicago office of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare said that "special problems" are raised if a member of the board bids on such a contract.

Perhaps the fact that we of the National Federation of the Blind exposed and publicized this situation helps explain Mr. Johnstone's attitude toward us. Some professionalism! Some volunteer! It may also help explain the attitude of the Minneapolis Society in general. But there is more: In the early 1970's the Minneapolis Society for the Blind had a thirty member board of directors, none of whom was blind. According to the By-Laws anybody who made a cash contribution was, thereby, a member. When the blind tried to become members, the Board of the Society declared that all members were expelled and that, in the future, nobody would be considered a member except those on the Board. As Federationists know, we took the matter to court in the early 1970's; and after some seven years of battle and delay, we forced the Minneapolis Society to abide by the state law and honor the provisions of its own articles of incorporation. The courts made the Society accept blind members and hold an election. The issue is still not finished and awaits further action by the courts. Is it surprising that Mr. Johnstone and the Minneapolis Society hate us and wish we would cease to exist? Not really.

But there is still more. There is the Kettner case. Lawrence Kettner was "evaluated" so that the Society could get an exemption and wiggle out of paying him the federal minimum wage. To say the least, the "evaluation" was unusual. Kettner was evaluated over a period of fourteen days, but the studies of his work were made only on the third, fourth, sixth, and eighth days. His duties were changed; the equipment was faulty; and there were delays in bringing him supplies. Even so, Kettner's productivity increased markedly (from 49% of normal production to 79%), showing the unfairness of not giving him time studies after the eighth day of the fourteen day period. He says he was called into the Director's office and badgered into signing a statement that he was capable of only 75% of normal production. He says he was told he would not be paid for the work he had done if he did not sign. He needed the money. He signed. Even as this was happening, he secured a job in private industry at a rate above the minimum wage.

We publicized the Kettner case far and wide, and we told the Department of Labor about it. Yes, I think I can understand why Mr. Johnstone and the Minneapolis Society for the Blind hate the organized blind movement—and it has nothing to do with so-called high-toned "professionalism." It is a matter of money and cover-up and exploitation. It is as simple and as despicable as that.

As to Mr. Johnstone's statement concerning the "legitimate blind," I would say this: He is not blind, so I do not see how that part applies; and as to the question of legitimacy, I would think (in the circumstances) the Minneapolis Society for the Blind would not want to discuss it. The matter of unblemished paternity is a sensitive issue. So much, then, for Mr. Johnstone and his talk about the "legitimate blind. "

But what about the others who attack us, the others in the American Foundation for the Blind-NAC combine? Are their reasons for hating us similar to those of Mr. Johnstone and his Minneapolis Society? Let us call them off and examine their "legitimacy." First, the Cleveland Society for the Blind. It is locked in a battle with blind snack bar operators. In 1972 the Director of the Society told the blind operators that they must contribute specified amounts to the United Torch Campaign or face dismissal. Under the Federal Randolph-Sheppard Program, Ohio was authorized to take as a service charge no more than three percent from the gross earnings of operators, but the Cleveland Society was taking eight percent. This could amount to as much as half of the net earnings of an operator. Moreover, as a condition of employment each blind operator was forced to sign an agreement giving the Cleveland Society unbelievable power over his or her personal life. The operator had to agree (and I quote) to: "have an annual physical check-up; eat a balanced diet; obtain adequate rest commensurate with the hours to be worked at a snack bar; bathe daily; shampoo frequently; use appropriate deodorants; wear clean underclothing; and wear comfortable shoes."

We in the Federation (at least, most of us do) believe in regular bathing and good personal hygiene, but we are not willing (as a condition of employment) to have somebody cram it down our throats—tell us how much rest to get, what kind of food to eat, what kind of deodorants to use, and when to change our underwear. In the newspapers the Director of the Cleveland Society defended his rules by saying that "Blind people have to be especially careful."

And, of course, he is right. We do have to be careful—of people like him. We (you and I, the National Federation of the Blind) took this Director and his custodial agency to court and publicized what he was doing. The battle still continues. Is it any wonder that the Cleveland Society for the Blind and its Director hate the organized blind movement and wish we would cease to exist? Not really. Yet, they tell us that there is no discrimination and that the blind are not a minority; but we know who we are, and we will never go back.

The Cincinnati Association for the Blind and the Houston Lighthouse for the Blind have refused to comply with orders from the National Labor Relations Board that they permit their blind workers to organize. We stimulated those organizing efforts and are now fighting these two agencies in the Federal courts. Is it surprising that they hate us and brand us as "militants" and "trouble-makers?" Not at all. How could it be otherwise?

The Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind used every tactic it could (including the firing of blind organizers) to prevent blind employees from forming a union. We took the matter to the National Labor Relations Board, and we picketed. It is hardly necessary to add that the Chicago Lighthouse is a principal leader in the combine which attacks us. We picketed the Evansville Association for the Blind and told the public what the Association was doing (all in the name of charity, and with publicly contributed funds) to exploit and hurt blind people. We picketed the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind in Washington, D.C., when it was having a gala charity ball attended by leading socialites. We told these socialites and the public-at-large how the Lighthouse really operates, and what it is doing to the lives of blind people. Agency officials in Florida and Alabama have been criminally indicted. All of these groups (the Minneapolis Society for the Blind, the Cleveland Society, the Cincinnati Association, the Houston Lighthouse, the Chicago Lighthouse, the Evansville Association, the Columbia Lighthouse, and the Alabama and Florida agencies) have two things in common: They exploit the blind, and they are all accredited by NAC.

Then there is New York—New York, the home territory and the special turf of the American Foundation for the Blind and NAC. In 1978 there was a state audit of Industries for the Blind of New York, Inc. The audit showed that this organization (which was the principal governmental procurement agency for blind—made products in the state) spent its money on liquor and lavish parties and expensive cars and high salaries and God knows what else which the average human being would consider to be totally unrelated to the welfare of the blind. And what is Industries for the Blind of New York, Inc.? Well, it is a board consisting of the representatives of ten agencies, seven of which are accredited by NAC. They are flagships in the NAC fleet. Wesley Sprague, Director of the New York Association for the Blind, is (of all things) the long-time Chairman of NAC's Commission on Standards. Joseph Larkin, Director of the Industrial Home for the Blind of Brooklyn, is a NAC board member. Peter Salmon, the Industrial Home's former Director, is NAC's past president.

There are some five hundred organizations and groups in this country which might conceivably choose to be accredited by NAC. Yet, by January of 1980 (a decade and a half after its formation) NAC was forced to admit that it had only seventy-nine agencies in its fold. But let me hasten to add that these are very special agencies. Our best information indicates that they probably have a total combined wealth of somewhere in the neighborhood of a half a billion dollars. Think about it!—half a billion dollars! A few of them may truly be service oriented and dedicated to high standards and the best interests of the blind—but there are the others, the ones that Mr. Johnstone would presumably call the "legitimate blind." I have detailed for you the conduct of sixteen of these. Sixteen! More than twenty percent of NAC's entire membership. And there is evidence which could be brought against many of the rest. NAC: What a sorry, miserable spectacle! It is not a concern for "professionalism" which is the bur under the saddle of some of these people. It is the fear that we may expose their real concerns: the making of money, the lapping of liquor, the lust for luxury, and the push for power.

No, it is not surprising that the American Foundation for the Blind-NAC combine hates us and that they are determined to destroy the National Federation of the Blind. We are the principal threat to their master plan—their effort to gain complete control over the lives of every blind man, woman, and child in this nation—their hope to live happily in luxury ever after. To speak of "legitimacy" in the same breath with NAC is reminiscent of what Franklin Roosevelt said in 1936 about mentioning the depression in the presence of the Republican Party. It is like showing a rope to the family of a man who has been hanged.

As I have already said, there are both similarities and differences between the 1950's and the 1970's—between 1960 and 1980. In the fifties the external attacks brought severe internal conflict. In the late seventies we saw some of the same tendencies—but even though the pressures have been greater this time around, the dissension among us has been minimal, giving testimony to our increased strength and maturity as a movement. We are a part of all that we met in the 1950's. We learned—and history does not quite repeat itself.

There is also a new element, one which was not present twenty years ago. In the fifties we had not yet become strong enough to get very many of our own people appointed to positions of leadership in the agencies. By the seventies the situation was different. In 1976 and 1977 we came within a vote or two of having a majority in the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind. A number of our own members had been named as state directors, and many of the other state directors were and are supportive of our cause.

However, there was a problem, one from which we must learn. Just because an individual calls himself or herself a Federationist, that does not necessarily mean that he or she is immune to the temptations of agency power—the ability to control lives and the urge to equate one's own interests with those of the blind consumers. Increasingly in the seventies we became strong enough to bring reform to a growing number of agencies and to play a deciding role in determining who their directors would be. Quite naturally, our people (having suffered so grievously from the poor service and custodial treatment dished out by the agencies) wanted to have Federationists as directors. Sometimes we made bad choices. It was almost as if, out of reaction to the miserable service we had received, we said: "Give us a Federationist—any Federationist-just so long as we can throw off the yoke of what we have had." It was a mistake—one for which we are now paying.

Some of these so-called Federationists had hardly been appointed to office before they tried to take over the affiliates in their states and make them mere auxiliaries and fronts for their own vested interests. They put aside their loyalties and principles and seemed to forget that they had obtained their jobs as part of a national movement—the overall struggle of the blind as a people to be free. They forgot (if, indeed, they had ever truly believed) what it is that has brought us as far as we have come on the road to first-class status and the full rights of citizenship. No individual or state organization—no local group or single person—could have done it alone. It required the combined effort of us all. It still requires that combined effort if we are to finish the journey. In its absence none of us (not a single blind human being) will go the rest of the way to equality and freedom. We should have been more selective in supporting candidates for agency leadership—but we are a part of all that we have met. We have learned. Fortunately we are strong enough to absorb the shock of the lesson. We will not make the same mistake again. In the future the primary test of whether we will support an individual for a position of leadership in an agency will not be whether that person is called a Federationist but what kind of philosophy and commitment the individual demonstrates. Of course, this has always been our concern, but the emphasis is now different and the care more thorough. Better a neutral (one with the basics of a good philosophy, who is willing to work with us in partnership to win our support) than a Federationist in name only (one who takes it for granted that, because of his or her reputation as a Federationist—even a strong Federationist—we will automatically be supportive, regardless of the agency's conduct or behavior). We have come too far on the road of liberation to turn back now. We are not willing to exchange one master for another, even if the new would-be custodian has been our colleague or uses the name "Federationist." We will say it as often as we must: We want no strife or confrontation, but we will do what we have to do. They tell us that the blind are not a minority and that there is no discrimination; but we know who we are, and we will never go back.

As Federationists know, I get a constant stream of letters from blind people from all over the country. Some of these letters are highly literate. Others are not. Taken together, they show the pattern and give the details of what it is like to be blind in America today. They tell of the hopes and aspirations and problems which the blind confront. I want to share with you a brief passage from one of these letters. It is from a woman in her early fifties. In page after page she cries out with the heartache of a life of frustration. Here is part of what she says:

I went to the state rehabilitation agency because I was seeking employment. I believe I was referred there by the employment service. I couldn't understand why no one wanted to hire me. The reason given most frequently was lack of experience. But I was young. "How does one get that experience?" I kept asking myself. And the rehabilitation agency could do nothing to help me. I am sure that each employer I saw felt that I should get my experience some place else ...

This part of her letter refers to her early twenties. When she comes to the present (the time of her early fifties) she says:

The rehabilitation agency can still do nothing to help me. My efforts to obtain employment are the same continuing story. I won't drag it out any further except to say that I have met with repeated failure. I haven't enough skill to get a typing job, and apparently I haven't the training or skill (or is it that I can't get the opportunity?) to do anything else. I never have enough experience to compete, but as was the case when I was young, how can I get that experience if no one will give me a chance to try? And (now that I am in my fifties) who is going to give me the chance to try with my lack of experience?

I feel already as though I am in forced retirement. I shudder to think how the actual retirement years will be. I am not sure where to go from here—whether I should try to change my life, or merely be resigned to the fact that this is probably how it will be from now on.

I am sure that my story is not new to you. You must hear something like it almost every day. Perhaps you can measure my despair by the number of pages in this letter. I see my life ebbing away and I have yet to find my niche to occupy. This inactivity and lack of a life's work is not how I would choose to spend what is left of my productive years. I dreamed of the future when I was young. Now, I look around me sometimes and say, "Dear God, this is the future." I'm living it now. Perhaps it is the only future I will ever have.

How can I answer such a letter? What can I say to ease the burden or lighten the load? Day by day the hope has been killed, the spirit has been crushed, and the dream destroyed. Yet, NAC and Mr. Johnstone tell us that all will be well if we will only leave it to them and their agencies. All they need, they say, is a few more teeth—and enough money to crush the NFB. How twisted! How pathetic! In their luxury and so-called "professionalism" they do not even know of the existence of the deprivation and the misery—of the daily struggles and problems of the ordinary blind individual.

As we stand at the door of the fifth decade of our organization, we must thoroughly understand the lessons of history, for the eighties will be a time of trial and decision. They will require all that we have in the way of ability and devotion and courage. We must work not only for ourselves but also for the blind of the next generation, for they are our children. If not biologically, they are surely morally our children, and we must make certain that they have the chance for better lives and fuller opportunities than we have had.

When we talk of history, we usually think of the past—but what will future historians say of us—of you and me—of the National Federation of the Blind in 1980? What will they say of our struggle for freedom and our battle with NAC, the American Foundation for the Blind, and the other custodial agencies? As I said in 1973, future historians can only record the events which we make 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 those things for ourselves, or not have them at all.

We have come a long way together in this movement. Some of us are veterans, going back to the forties; 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 ...

If we falter or dishonor our heritage, we will betray not only ourselves but those who went before us and those who come after. But, of course, we will not fail. Whatever the cost, we shall pay it. Whatever the sacrifice, we shall make it. We cannot turn back or stand still. Instead, we must go forward.2

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 now than we have ever been, and we have learned well the lessons of history. My brothers and my sisters, the future is ours. Come! Join me in the battle line, and we will make it all come true.


1. Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, "The Federation at Twenty-Five: Postview and Preview," August, 1965, Braille Monitor, pp. 87 and 88.

2. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, "Blindness: Is History Against Us?" September, 1973, Braille Monitor, pp. 10 and 11.

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