by Kenneth Jernigan
From the Editor: When I joined the National Federation of the Blind in the seventies, one of the most powerful and moving recordings I listened to was Dr. Jernigan’s articulation of the reasons why he had dedicated his life to building and strengthening the NFB. He sat down and recorded a message to be played at an organizing meeting in Vermont. For decades that record was an effective tool for the organization as we worked to establish new chapters and strengthen existing ones.
Gradually it began to seem a bit out of date. The stories Dr. Jernigan told were ones we had already heard. Eventually it became unavailable. Recently it was placed on our website. It had never been transcribed into print, so only the recording of Dr. Jernigan addressing those long-ago new Federationists was put up. We thought that it was important to make this document available to everyone once again. We have done our best to capture in print the informal, conversational tone of Dr. Jernigan’s remarks. Those who receive the Braille Monitor as a recording will hear his voice again. Print and Braille readers will have to settle for the transcription. We strongly urge you to go to our website to hear the original recording at
<https://archive.nfb.org/images/nfb/Audio/Misc_2011/Why_I_Am_A_Federationist.mp3>. Here it is:
Greetings to all of you. I wish very much that I could be present for this great occasion for the blind of Vermont and indeed for the blind of the country because, with the organization of the Federation in Vermont, we only have two states left to go--South Dakota and Wisconsin. They will be coming into the Federation sometime during the next few months. I know that the organizing team, under the direction of Shirley Lebowitz, has had an exciting time while this organization has been brought into being, and I know also that you, the new members of the National Federation of the Blind of Vermont, have participated in that excitement.
Today you are taking part in an historic occasion because you are bringing into being a new state affiliate of the organized blind movement. I think you'll find that programs for the blind in the state of Vermont and, in fact, living conditions for the blind will improve as a result of what you are doing today and that they'll improve noticeably and fairly soon. You are now becoming part of the Federation family. That means that we work together at the state, the national, the local level to improve the conditions of all blind people.
Again let me tell you how very much I wish I could be with you today. Since I can't, I want you to hear some remarks that I have recorded for you about why I am a Federationist. I'd like you to hear my personal experience. Perhaps it will tell you something of why I work as hard as I do in this movement and why I think it's so important--not just to me as a person but to all blind people.
You know I grew up on a farm in the state of Tennessee, and, when I was a kid, things were a lot different for blind people than they are now. My mother and father loved me, but at the same time they didn't know what to think I could do as a blind person. Very many times they've said to me, "Well you must realize that you can't do this or this or this. When you grow up," they said to me, more times than one I guess, "we hope that you and your brother will live close to each other so that he can help take care of you.” They weren't trying to belittle; they were saying what was in their heart--what they thought blind persons could be expected to do.
I went to the Tennessee State School for the Blind. I don't know how many of you went to a residential school, but that one had some practices that even now, for the life of me, I can't figure the reason for--for one thing their policy toward reading matter and toward study. If you were in the first grade in that school, you could not read books except at specified times during the day, and you couldn't come down at night to the study hall; it was a privilege supposedly to be able to study at night--you went to bed with the little boys. Now when you were in the second grade, the policy was that you could come down for half an hour at night, and you could study, but you couldn't take books out. You couldn't in the first grade either, of course. You could write Braille, but you could only have a quarter of a sheet of Braille paper. I suppose the school must’ve been terribly short of funds at the time.
By the time you got to the third grade, although you still couldn't take books out, you could study for an hour at night. You could come down, and you were a bigger boy by that time.
Now when you got to the intermediate grades, the fourth, fifth, and sixth, you came down for an hour at night for study hall, but you could also take one Braille volume out on the weekends. You couldn't take books out during the week to read for fun, but you could take out one on the weekend, and of course pretty soon a number of us got so that we--well we tried to circumvent this prohibition. We'd check out books in series. I'd take, for instance, volume two, and another fellow would have volume one, and somebody else would have volume three, and we would stay up all night on Friday night and Saturday night too sometimes--reading--and whoever got volume three would just start reading volume three. This was against the rules, but we did it anyway.
By the time you got to the seventh grade, you could check out books and take them out during the week or on weekends, and you could keep them in your room. By that time one's attitude toward reading was pretty well fixed.
Now let me go back just a moment. It's lonely for a blind kid, or it certainly was on a farm in a rural setting in those days. I remember that, during the time before I went to school, there was no radio there; there was no phonograph; there was no electricity. By and large there was nobody to play with except kids who were oriented to games that sighted kids played and nobody to stimulate or help me believe that I could do any of those things. Now of course I did some of them anyway, but it makes a difference whether you have somebody saying, come on, you can do this--somebody who helps stretch you beyond what you think you can do or, on the other hand, if you have somebody always saying you really can't expect to do this and therefore kind of pulls you back from whatever you would have a tendency to do.
The first summer after I went home from school was a lonely time. I remember that somebody, I don't know who it was, turned my name in to get a little book put out by the Lions Club called the Juvenile Braille Magazine. I don't know whether that magazine is still published or not, but it had about fifty or sixty pages in it. I could've read it all in an hour, but I didn't, because it's all the reading I had. I didn't know about any libraries for the blind, so I rationed out the reading so that I'd have something to do.
I suppose that gives you some idea of the background with which I went into school and high school. Now some things are worth talking about, I think, in high-school life. We wondered what we would do when we got out of high school. A lot of us talked fairly bravely about what we planned, but I think secretly we all wondered if we'd have a job or if school would end our effective life. It isn't that way, you know, with sighted kids, or it certainly wasn't then, and I think it isn't now. What we did was to think in terms of either going to the workshop and making brooms or possibly some never-never land of going to college and hoping that beyond that time there'd be something. Mostly our teachers didn't believe that blind persons could do anything. They didn't say that, and, if you had asked them, they'd have denied it, but in reality they did not believe that blind people could compete on terms of equality with others. It showed through everything they said and did. For instance, if we had visitors come to the school and some student was going to show them around, the person with the most sight was picked--inevitably. If there had to be a chair moved or somebody was going to help unload something, always the guy with the most eyesight was asked to do it.
We had a kind of camp that the Lions had bought for the school, and now and again, once or twice a year, we'd go out there on camping trips. Sometimes the people who were Boy Scouts or sometimes the boys in a given grade or the girls in a given grade would go out there and stay overnight. Inevitably, when the cooking was to be done or a fire was to be built, the kids with the most sight did it, and the totally blind ones were expected to wait until the food was prepared, and then they could eat.
Now nobody said you have ability in direct proportion to how much eyesight you have; it was much more compelling and much more devastating than that--because every action was geared, every program was structured, every thought, every word was aimed at showing you, in graphic form, that blindness meant inferiority. I think all of us learned that lesson well.
I felt it wasn't right—somehow I didn't believe it. But I was only a child, and I had nothing as a yardstick. I didn't know blind persons who were successful as scientists or lawyers or teachers or businessmen. One or two had been successful but not many, and they didn't, by and large, come around and associate with us and encourage and stimulate us. There was no sense of community, no sense that we had a common problem because we were blind.
Now one more thing about school before I leave that: When I was getting ready to graduate from high school, I well remember sitting in what was called the parlor because this school in Tennessee was made from an old southern mansion which had been donated to the state for that purpose. The best room there was called the parlor. I was there, and the rehabilitation counselor came out to talk to me. It was the first time I ran across the word “feasible.” He asked me what I wanted to do. We'd pretty much agreed that I was going to college. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said to him, "Well, I want to be a lawyer." Well, he got off of that and talked about the weather and one thing or another, and then he came back and said, “Now why don't you tell me two or three things that might be objectives."
Well I was brash and young and very determined, and I said, "Oh, I don't need to tell you two or three things--I want to be a lawyer.”
He said, "Well, I think that isn't feasible. You'd have to see the faces of your jurors; you'd have to do research; you couldn't do that; and you wouldn't be able to handle the courtroom appearances and the reading you'd have to do.”
I said, "Well, are you telling me that a blind person can't be a lawyer?"
He said, "Well, I'm just saying it isn't practical, isn't feasible." I argued, but ultimately we came down to this: he said it much more politely and in a much more genteel way than this, but what he finally said was, in effect, "You either go to college and you be a lawyer and pay for it yourself, or you go to school and you be something else, and we'll help you pay for it." Well I didn't have any money. So I went, and I was something else.
I know now that he was wrong. I knew it then, but I couldn't prove it because I didn't know successfully practicing blind lawyers. I know probably half a hundred or more now. Nobody should've taken that much power over the life of another human being, especially when he was wrong. But the point is he was not trying to be cruel; he was not trying to be arrogant. He did what he did because he didn't know any better. He did it because he didn't believe in the possibilities, in the capabilities of blind people--that's really what it amounted to.
Anyway, I went on to college, and, when I got through with college, I had an interesting thing happen. I went on, after the undergraduate work, for a graduate degree. Then, getting through with that, I went to the president of the college (he and I had gotten to know each other pretty well), and I said to him, "I'd like, while I go on and work toward a doctorate, for you to give me an assistantship, for you to let me have a teaching position here and let me go on and do my studies."
He said, "Look, I'm not going to do it."
I said, "Tell me why."
He said, "Well, I think you probably would do the best job of anybody I can find. I think your academic record indicates that, and I think your personality indicates it. But you might fail, and, if you did, then I think that I might run into a good deal of social pressure for having fired a blind person. Also I think it would hurt my conscience--I think it would bother me, and I'm just not going to take the chance."
I said, "If everybody feels that way, I'll starve, or else I'll have to live on welfare."
He said, "Look, I've gotten to know you pretty well, and I'm gonna level with you. It's your problem."
I said, "I'll give it to you: at least you're honest. But something's got to be done to alter this kind of thing. This is not right." But I didn't get the job.
From college I went into teaching at the school for the blind in Tennessee. The same day that I got the offer to do teaching at the school, I also had an offer to go into college teaching as an assistant instructor, and I would've probably gone on and done more graduate work. I had to decide, do I want to go into college teaching, or do I want to go back and work with the blind? I decided to go back to the school because I thought blind children there ought to have some opportunities and some stimulation that I had not had, that they ought to have somebody work with them to say to them, look, you can do it; it can be done. Don't sell yourself short. And also, to say to them, early, that you've got to begin to believe that the way to solve your problem is to get together with other blind people who also are having some of these difficulties with society, and you've got to have common action, joint action. I think it's about that time that I began to feel this fairly strongly.
Pretty soon after I went to the school for the blind in Tennessee, I began to be very active in the organization--that is, pretty soon after I became a teacher there, I began to be very active in the organization of the blind, the Federation in that state. One day, after I'd been there awhile (it was about the third or fourth year of my teaching), one of the sighted teachers came to me, and she was crying. By that time I was president of the state affiliate of the Federation. She said to me, "What good is this organization of the blind?"
I said, "Well, I have an idea from the way you're talking and the fact that you're crying that it's not simply an academic question you're asking me. Why don't you tell me what you've got on your mind, and I'll try to deal with it."
She said, "One of the students came into my class today with a scratch on his neck and blood on it. He was crying, and the other students were upset. These are fifth-graders and they told me that this male teacher had kicked one of them in the back and had hit another in the mouth. He said that, if any of the rest of them didn't like it, he'd kick their teeth down their throats. They're upset, and they're afraid.
I went with them to the superintendent, and I asked him what he would do about it. The superintendent confined them to their rooms for a week in all of their off-hours because they were making trouble. She said, “I don't know what to do."
I said, "Well, okay, I know what to do. Are you willing to swear to this? Are you willing to put it in written form and sign it?"
She said, "I can't afford to lose my job."
I said, "You won't! Whatever comes, you won't lose your job." She did sign an affidavit, and I did some soul-searching because I knew how bad that teacher had been. I knew that he had taken liberties with some of the high school girls there. I knew that he very often drank while on the job, and I knew that, although the superintendent had not participated in some of those activities, he had condoned what this man had done and had tolerated it. He had known about it.
So a number of us went, in our capacities as members of the organized blind movement, and we said to the state board of education, "You've got to do something about it. If you don't, we'll go to the press with it; you have to.” So at the end of the year the state board of education fired the superintendent and fired the teacher in question because they said the charges were true. They fired me because they said that I had not been loyal to my employer. I suppose that's all right. But they did not fire the teacher who had made the affidavit; we made it clear we wouldn't tolerate that. In some ways I suppose that's the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn't complain about that; I thought it was worth it. But it made me think about the need for strong organization of the blind—self-organization!
Is the case in Tennessee that I've described to you unique? I don't think so. Do things that are comparable happen now? I think so. I don't know the circumstances, but I think that blind persons still have not arrived at full first-class citizenship.
I went to California. I worked there for five years in the programs for the blind as an assistant to the director of the orientation center in California (the training center). Then I came in 1958 to Iowa, and I came at a salary reduction. The reason I came was that it was an opportunity for one of us who was a leader in the Federation movement to direct a state program for the blind and to prove the philosophy we've been talking about. You know it was easy for state directors and others to say, "All right, you people in the Federation can criticize, but you don't have the problem of getting budgets, of dealing with legislators, of administering programs, of finding personnel, of dealing with blind persons who may be recalcitrant. You don't have those problems, so it's easy to criticize.” On the other hand, if we could take one state program and make it work and show what our philosophy meant and what it was, then it would be a different thing. It was partly for that reason that I came to Iowa with the determination that, come what might, we had to have a successful program, one that would be meaningful to blind people.
I well remember that, after I'd been appointed in Iowa and before I came to the state, I went to another state to a convention of our affiliate. The director of programs for the blind in that state came to that convention (that was the first time he had done that sort of thing) and he hunted me up, got me off to one side, and he said to me, "I realize that you've been in the Federation and you've taken a very active and militant stand on some of these things. I think it's well for you to continue in the Federation; that's a good thing because you can be very helpful there to all of us in work with the blind. But now you're on the other side of the table. You're one of us, and I think you’re going to see things a lot differently. I think you can expect a good deal of advancement in the organizations of the professionals dealing with work with the blind.”
I listened to what he said, and I went home to California. I talked to Dr. tenBroek about it. Dr. tenBroek said, "Why the SOB thinks you have as little principle as he does!"
Of course I did not become less active in the NFB. I did not shift my loyalties. I think that a man can do a good job as director of programs for the blind and still have his prime loyalties to blind people and still feel that nobody, including a blind person who is the director of a program for the blind, can really speak for blind people unless blind people elect him to that position. I happen to believe that more and more the people who work in agencies for the blind must come to recognize the validity, in fact the necessity, of self-organization by blind people.
So what does all of this have to do with your meeting tonight? What does it have to do with why I am a Federationist? I think that we are in the midst of transition and change in this country. I think we will not forever be in the midst of transition and change--people aren't like that. No society stays fluid forever. There are periods of change and then periods of rest. I think that we're probably setting the tone for the next fifty, sixty, seventy years during this decade. I think it's important that the right message be given to society and to the blind themselves as to what blindness really is and what it means.
Just as it's important for other groups, it's important for blind people to shape their own destinies, to have a say about what's going to be done with their lives. We know that the National Accreditation Council, that is, NAC, is trying to gain respectability and is trying to set the pattern and the tone for all work with the blind. We know that more and more in the computerized age there is a tendency to dehumanize all of us as citizens and as blind people. This is not because somebody's trying deliberately to be mean to us or do us in--not at all. It's simply part of the age we live in. The way to counter that sort of thing is through self-organization. It's why I'm a Federationist; It's why I believe you are Federationists. It's worth giving to. It's worth giving time and money; it's worth giving parts of our life to because that's what time is; it's part of your life.
I believe that there is no other way for blind people to have full first-class citizenship than through self-organization, the organized blind movement. This is why I'm part of the Federation; it's why I give to it my nights, my weekends, and whatever time I can.
I think that we've made tremendous progress as Federationists, and I think we're not only helping sighted persons in the community at large to come to new attitudes about blindness, but that we ourselves are helping each other to understand new truths about what blindness is and what it isn't. We of course must realize that, although many sighted people do not understand the problems we have, many do, and as a matter of fact some of the strongest workers, some of the best members we have in the National Federation of the Blind, are sighted people. What really counts is the attitude, the frame of mind, the notion that we, as blind people, should be able to map our own destinies--that's what counts.
I think there are things that we must guard against. It's easy, if you're part of a minority group, every time you have a failure to blame it on the public at large and to say, if I'd just been given an opportunity by sighted people, then I could've done this or this or this. That's not always true. We must begin by assuming responsibility for our own failures. We must try ourselves to make our lives better. We must avoid blaming every problem we have on sighted people or on the agencies doing work with the blind. We must ourselves have a mature attitude. We must not simply be crybabies. We must not, on the one hand, ask for equal treatment when we want it, and, on the other, ask for special favors and special treatment when we want that. We must make of Federationism the living, growing, viable thing which it is. We must make it a reality, not simply a philosophy that's talked about.
On the other hand we must try to reform the agencies doing work with the blind. We must try to bring them to new ways of thought concerning blindness, and we must also try to educate the public and to bring them to new ways of thought about blindness. This is why we have put out the public service announcements that are now being sent to radio stations, why we're urging affiliates to take those recordings (and also the television spots to the TV stations) so that we can get the message across to the public. It's why we need to try to find new blind persons who are not familiar with our movement so that they too can share in the progress we're making. We're all judged, each by the other. That's why the actions of the organization are so important to everyone of us, members and nonmembers alike.
I guess that I've made it clear by now to you that, as far as I'm concerned, the most important single thing in the improvement of the lives of blind people that we have today is the National Federation of the Blind. This is why I am a member of that organization. It's why I work to try to bring other blind people into it. I think it's why we must get the word out to every blind person we can possibly reach and why we must get the word out to sighted people--as many of them as we can reach. There's a great deal of goodwill toward us on the part of sighted people. We must take advantage of that goodwill, but we must not abuse it. We must see that that goodwill is the vehicle for real improvement. We've got a big job ahead of us. We've got a job that's worth the doing. We've also got a job that's important--as important as the lives and destinies of all of us.
I said to you to begin with that I wanted to talk with you about why I am a Federationist. In a way, of course, I'm talking to you about why all of us are Federationists because, although the details of your experiences will vary from the details of mine, nevertheless the overall pattern of the story is the same. It's a changing pattern. Things are better for us now than they used to be. The cup is either half empty or half full, whichever way you want to put it. But if we're going to fill it the rest of the way, if we're going to make progress, then we've got to do it as a movement; we've got to do it as a Federation.
I'm pleased to have had the opportunity to be with you, if not in person, then by tape, because this was the best way and the only way I could reach you tonight. I hope your meeting has been successful. I hope you will redouble your efforts (however much they have been) in the year to come to strengthen the Federation, to be part of it, and to be part of it not just in name but in spirit and to get other blind persons to be part of it. I hope that you will wear your Federation pins. It's a symbol; it tells the world that you're part of a movement. I hope you'll read and study the Monitor and the presidential releases that come out. I hope you will talk to other blind people and the public at large about the movement. In other words, I hope you will live Federationism and that you will strengthen each other in it. This is the way we're going to set blind people free, each other free, and ourselves free from the bondage that we've been under for generations--in fact, throughout all recorded history. This is why I am a Federationist.
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