From the Editor: As the 2015 Convention and some of the celebrations planned for the NFB’s seventy-fifth anniversary approaches, we at the Monitor thought we’d look back at what two of the Federation’s founders had to say at earlier milestones in Federation history. This month we’re republishing an address given by Jacobus tenBroek at the twenty-fifth anniversary convention banquet, held in July 1965 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC:
Oscar Wilde tells us: "Most modern calendars mar the sweet simplicity of our lives by reminding us that each day that passes is the anniversary of some perfectly uninteresting event." We must approach the task of celebration and review with some pause and some humility, neither exaggerating our importance nor underestimating it. It is my task in this spirit to capsulize our history, convey our purposes, and contemplate our future.
The career of our movement has not been a tranquil one. It has grown to maturity the hard way. The external pressures have been unremitting. It has been counseled by well-wishers that all would be well—and it has learned to resist. It has been attacked by agencies and administrators—and learned to fight back. It has been scolded by guardians and caretakers—and learned to talk back. It has cut its eye teeth on legal and political struggle, sharpened its wits through countless debates, broadened its mind and deepened its voice by incessant contest. Most important of all, it has never stopped moving, never stopped battling, never stopped marching toward its goals of security, equality, and opportunity for all the Nation's blind. It has risen from poverty to substance, from obscurity to global reputation.
It is fitting that the anniversary of our own independence movement should coincide with that of the nation itself. The two revolutions were vastly different in scope but identical in principle. We too memorialize a day of independence—independence from a wardship not unlike that of the American colonists. Until the advent of the National Federation, the blind people of America were taken care of but not represented; protected but not emancipated; seen but rarely heard.
Like Patrick Henry on the eve of revolution, we who are blind knew in 1940 that if we wished to be free, if we meant to gain those inestimable privileges of participation for which we had so long yearned, then we must organize for purposes of self-expression and collective action; then we must concert to engage in a noble struggle.
In that spirit the National Federation of the Blind was founded. In that spirit it has persevered. In that spirit it will prevail.
When the founding fathers of the Federation came together at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to form a union, they labored in a climate of skepticism and scorn. The experts said it couldn't be done; the agencies for the blind said it shouldn't be done. "When the blind lead the blind," declared the prophets of doom, "all shall fall into the ditch."
But the Federation was born without outside assistance. It stood upright without a helping hand. It is still on its feet today.
At the outset we declared our independence. In the past twenty-five years we have established it. Today we may say that the National Federation has arrived in America--and is here to stay. That is truly the "new outlook for the blind."
We have not reached our present standing, as all of you know, by inertia and idleness. The long road of our upward movement is divided into three phases—corresponding to the first decade, the second decade, and the third half-decade of our existence as an organization. Each of these three periods, though a part of a continuum, has had a different emphasis and a different character. Let us look at each of them.
The Federation was not born with a silver spoon in its mouth—but, like the Nation itself, it was born with the parchment of its principles in its hand. Our basic philosophy and purposes—even most of our long-range programs—existed full-panoplied at our origin. We were dedicated to the principles of security with freedom; of opportunity without prejudice; of equality in the law and on the job. We have never needed to alter or modify those goals, let alone compromise them. We have never faltered in our confidence that they are within our reach. We have never failed to labor for their implementation in political, legal, and economic terms.
The paramount problems of our first decade, the 1940's, 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 and ink, 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. It was a time of pioneering: and pioneer we did, by searching out new paths of opportunity and blazing organizational trails where no blind man had before set foot. It was a time of collective self-discovery and self-reliance: of rising confidence in our joint capacity to do the job—to hitch up our own wagon train and hitch it up we did.
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. In these very terms the decade of the fifties was a time both of triumph and travail. The triumph was not unmixed, but the travail was passing.
Our numbers escalated to a peak of forty-seven statewide affiliates with membership running to the tens of thousands. Our resources multiplied through a campaign of fundraising. Our voice was amplified with the inauguration of the Braille Monitor as a regular publication in print, braille, and tape, which carried the word of Federationism to the farthest parts of the Nation and many distant lands.
With the funds to back us up, with a broad base of membership behind us, with constructive programs of opportunity and enlargment, with growing public recognition and understanding, the Federation in the fifties galvanized its energies along an expanding front. We sent teams of blind experts into various states, on request of the governors, to prepare master plans for the reform of their welfare services to the blind. We aided our state affiliates in broad programs of legislative and administrative improvement in welfare and rehabilitation. We participated in opening the teaching profession to qualified blind teachers in a number of states. We assisted in bringing to completion the campaign to secure white cane laws in all of the states so that blind men might walk abroad anywhere in the land sustained by a faith justified by law. We shared with others the credit for infusing into federal welfare the constructive objective of self-care and self-support, progressive improvements in the aid grant and matching formula, and the addition of disability insurance. Over the unflagging opposition of the Social Security Administration, we secured the acceptance by Congress, in progressive amounts, the principle of exempt income for blind aid recipients; at first temporary, and finally permanent permission for Pennsylvania and Missouri to retain their separate and rehabilitative systems of public assistance; and we began to lay the groundwork by which our blind workers in the sheltered shops might secure the status and rights of employees. We pushed, pulled, and persuaded the civil service into first modifying, then relaxing, and finally scrapping its policy of discrimination against blind applicants for the public service.
In these enterprises, as against the doctrinaire, aloof resistance of administration, we had the cordial good will, practical understanding, and humane regard of an ever-growing number of Congressmen.
All of a sudden, in the furious fifties, the National Federation of the Blind was very much noticed. Our organizations became the objects of intense attention—if rarely of affection—on the part of the agencies, administrators, and their satellite groups which had dominated the field.
As the organized blind movement grew in affluence and in influence, as affiliates sprang up in state after state, county after county, across the land, as a groundswell of protest rose against the dead ends of sheltered employment and segregated training, of welfare programs tied to the poor law and social workers bound up in red tape, the forces of custodialism and control looked down from their lighthouses and fought back.
"The National Federation of the Blind," said its president in 1957, "stands today an embattled organization. Our motives have been impugned; our purposes reviled; our integrity aspersed; our representative character denied. Plans have been laid, activities undertaken, and concerted actions set in motion for the clear and unmistakable purpose of bringing about our destruction. Nothing less is sought than our extinction as an organization."
No Federationist who lived through that decade can forget how the battle was joined—in the historic struggle for the right of self-expression and free association. The single most famous piece of legislation our movement has produced—one which was never passed by Congress but which made its full weight felt and its message known throughout the world of welfare and the country of the blind—was the Kennedy-Baring Bill.
It is fitting that John F. Kennedy, then the junior senator from Massachusetts, was a sponsor of that bill of rights for the blind, who gave his name and voice to the defense of our right to organize.
Eight years ago he rose in the Senate to introduce and speak for his bill "to protect the right of the blind to self-expression." He told how some forty-three state associations of blind persons had become "federated into a single nationwide organization, the National Federation of the Blind." He declared: "It is important that these views be expressed freely and without interference. It is important that these views be heard and considered by persons charged with responsibility. . ." He pointed out that in various communities this freedom had "been prejudiced by a few professional workers in programs for the blind." He urged that "our blind citizens be protected against any exercise of this kind of influence or authority to interfere with their freedom of self-expression through organizations of the blind."
The Kennedy Bill was simple and sweeping in its purposes: to insure to the blind the right to organize without intimidation; and to insure to the blind the right to speak and to be heard through systematic means of consultation with the responsible agencies of government.
That bill of rights was not enacted; but it gained its ends in other ways. Lengthy and dramatic public hearings were held by a committee of Congress, at which dozens of blind witnesses both expert and rank-and-file testified to the extent of coercion and pressure brought against them by the forces hostile to their independence. "Little Kennedy bills" were introduced in a number of state legislatures and enacted by some. The forces of opposition called off their attack upon the organized blind and beat a strategic retreat.
Meanwhile, in that second decade, the Federation faced another bitter struggle within its own house. Not all Federationists were happy with the way the movement was going. There were a few who were decidedly "soft on custodialism," overfriendly to the agencies which opposed us. There were others with a burning passion for leadership and office, an ambition which burned the deeper as it burned in vain. There were still others whose grievances were personal; real enough to them if not substantial in fact. All of these factors combined in the fifties to form a temporary crisis of confidence and collaboration.
But then, as suddenly as it had begun, the civil turmoil ended. Those who had desired power for their own ends or for itself; who had sought to change the character and officers of the movement, departed to form their own organizations. Shaken in its unity, depleted in resources, diminished in membership, the Federation began the hard task of rebuilding and rededication.
That task has been the primary assignment of the sixties, and today, at the halfway point, we may report that it has been accomplished. During the five years past we have regained stability, recovered unity, and preserved democracy.
We have found new and dynamic leadership, in the person of a president imbued with youth and creative vigor. We have regained our fundraiser—the wizard of St. Louis—and with him has come the prospect of renewed resources. We have restored and rejuvenated the Braille Monitor, as not only the voice but the clarion call of the federated blind. We have reached across the seas, extending the hand of brotherhood and the vision of Federationism to blind people the world over—through the International Federation of the Blind.
We have made new friends—yes, and found new champions—in the Congress of the United States and in the legislatures of the states. And in so doing we have brightened the vistas of hope and opportunity not only for half a million blind Americans but for all the handicapped and deprived who rely upon their government for a hand up rather than a handout.
And in this new decade of the sixties, we of the Federation are reaching toward another base of understanding and support. We intend to carry our case and our cause, not only to the lawmakers in Congress but to the judges in the courts as well: for it is in their tribunals that new pathways of progress are being cleared, as the result of a happily evolving concept which holds that the great principles of the Constitution—among them liberty, dignity, privacy, and equality—must be brought down off the wall and made real in the lives of all our citizens with all deliberate speed.
The organized blind have traveled far in the past quarter century. The road ahead will not be easy. But the road is never easy for the blind traveler; every step is a challenge, every independent advance is a conquest. The movement of the organized blind in society is like the movement of the blind person in traffic: in both cases the gain is proportionate to the risk. Let us adventure together.
It was Theodore Roosevelt who said that the sign of real strength in a nation is that it can speak softly and carry a big stick. The sign of strength in our movement is that we speak vigorously and carry a white cane.
Whatever may be the challenges to come—whatever the opposition to be converted or defeated, whatever the problems of maintaining internal democracy and external drive, whatever the difficulties of activating successful but indifferent blind, whatever the slow progress and temporary setbacks in achieving our ultimate goals—our experience and accomplishments of a quarter-of-a-century tell us one thing: we can prevail!
And we shall prevail!
We have prevailed over the limitations of blindness, in our lives and in our movement. We shall prevail over the handicap of blindness in all its forms: not the physical disability, which is an act of nature that may not be repealed, but the social handicap which is an act of men that men may counteract.
We have prevailed, in our movement and our minds, over the myth of the "helpless blind man." We shall prevail over that myth of helplessness in the minds of all who have sight but not vision.
We have prevailed over the foredooming conclusion that the blind are ineducable, that lack of sight means loss of mind, and over the only slightly less foredooming conclusion that the blind can be taught but only the rudiments of academe and rudest of crafts. We shall prevail over every arbitrary restriction and exclusion inhibiting the fullest development of mind and skill of every blind person.
We have prevailed over the legal stricture that the blind should not mix and mingle with the public in public places but should confine their movement to the rocking chair. We shall prevail over the lingering concept in the law of torts that the white cane and white cane laws should not be given full credence and that blind persons are automatically guilty of contributory negligence whenever an accident befalls them.
We have prevailed over some of the myriad social discriminations against the blind in hotels, in renting rooms, houses, and safety deposit boxes, in traveling alone, in blood banks, in playing at gambling tables, in jury duty, and serving as a judge, in purchasing insurance, in release from the penitentiary on parole, in holding student body offices, in marriage laws and customs. We shall prevail over the whole sorry pattern which is no less vicious because it is sustained by the best of motives.
We have prevailed over the notion that the blind are capable only of sheltered employment. We shall prevail over the institution of the sheltered workshop itself as a proper place for any blind person capable of competitive employment.
We have prevailed against the exclusion of qualified blind workers in a number of fields of competitive employment. We shall prevail over such discrimination in every calling and career.
We have prevailed over the principle of welfare aid as a mere palliative for those in distress, without built-in incentives to help them out of that distress. We shall prevail over the stubborn remnants of the poor-law creed—the means test, the liens pest, the requirement of residence, the concept of relatives' responsibility—wherever they rear their Elizabethan heads in the statutes of the states and Nation.
We have prevailed over the obstacles to communication and communion among the blind of America—the physical distances, the psychological differences, the lack of devices for writing and talking—which have isolated us from one another. We shall prevail over the greater obstacles to communication and affiliation among the blind people of the world—we shall carry Federationism to all the nations.
We shall prevail because we have demonstrated to the world and to ourselves that the blind possess the strength to stand together and to walk alone; the capacity to speak for themselves and to be heard with respect; the resolute determination of a common purpose and a democratic cause; the faith that can move mountains—and mount movements!Twenty-five years—a quarter of a century—how much time is that? In the perspective of eternity, it is an incalculable and imperceptible fraction. In the chronology of the universe, it is less than an instant. In the eye of God, it is no more than a flash. In the biography of a social movement, based on justice and equality, it is a measurable segment. In the life of a man—say from his thirtieth to his fifty-fifth year—it encompasses the best years, the very prime, when experience, energy, and intelligence mingle in their most favorable proportions, before which he is too young, and after which he is too old. As a man who spent those twenty-five best years of life in and with the Federation, I have few regrets, immense pride, and boundless hope for the future.