Dr. Jernigan sitting at his desk
Black and wight photo of Dr. Jernigan sitting at his desk reading a braille book.
“A light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself.” — Plato
The annual banquet of the National Federation of the Blind is often regarded by many as the highlight of NFB National Conventions. It is characterized by fine food, good company, rousing songs, impressive award presentations including scholarships awarded to outstanding blind college students and an inspirational address by the federation’s president. These speeches often reflect on the organization’s history and accomplishments during the past year, and call upon the membership to chart a course for the organization’s future directions. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan delivered 18 inspirational banquet addresses while serving as President of the NFB, and three other banquet speeches at other times during his involvement in the NFB. Each banquet address explores some aspect of blindness and the work of the National Federation of the Blind. They also force those who read or listen to them to examine their own attitudes towards their blindness, and encourage the blind to reach for higher ground in their personal lives, and to further the work of the federation. To learn more about Dr. Jernigan, Click here.
1968: Milestones and Millstones
At the 1968 Convention, held in Des Moines Iowa, in 1968 there were nearly a thousand people on the floor at peak periods. Some 730 of them attended the banquet that year to applaud their newly installed President as he delivered an inspirational address entitled Blindness: Milestones and Millstones in which he memorialized the passing of the torch from one generation of leaders to the next.
President Jernigan concluded his address to a standing ovation with these resonant words:
Let the word go out from this place and this moment that the torch has been passed to a new generation of blind Americans, a generation born in this century and fully belonging to it, a generation committed to the belief that all men (seeing or blind) are capable of independence and self-direction, of attaining equality and pursuing happiness in their own way, of serving each other and helping themselves of walking alone and marching together.
1970: Blindness: The myth and the Image
In 1970, at the Federation’s thirtieth anniversary convention, President Jernigan delivered a banquet address which many veteran members of the movement were later to regard as among the most eloquent of his long career in the leadership of the organized blind. Speaking on the topic, “Blindness: The Myth and the Image,” Jernigan exposed the hidden dimension of mythology and superstition which still conditioned social attitudes toward the blind. In particular he struck at the disaster concept of blindness with its melodramatic insistence upon regarding every blind person as a tragic figure; and he demonstrated in graphic detail that this mythical image was prevalent not merely in public opinion but in professional policy and practice.
1971: To Man the Barricades
In his banquet address at the 1971 convention Jernigan linked the theme of leadership with that of relationship more particularly, the various and shifting relationships between the organized blind and elements of the blindness system. In a rousing speech received with waves of applause and a final standing ovation, the NFB President warned all who still clung to the old ways of condescension and caretaking that a day of reckoning was at hand. We don’t want strife or dissension, he said, but the time is absolutely at an end when we will passively tolerate second-class citizenship and custodial treatment. We are free men, and we intend to act like it. We are free men, and we intend to stay that way. We are free men, and we intend to defend ourselves. Let those who truly have the best interest of the blind at heart join with us as we move into the new era of equality and integration. Let those who call our conduct negative or destructive make the most of it.
1972: The New Generation
When the delegates gathered in Chicago for the 1972 convention, their numbers and enthusiasm gave tangible evidence of the growing impact which the Federation was having on the lives of the blind of the nation. Themes of leadership and relationship of what role the blind should play in determining their own destiny and in their interaction with the governmental and private agencies established to give them service, as well as with the general public were again major focal points of attention and discussion. By 1972 the ranks of the first generation had thinned. This was the second generation (the new generation) taking up the banner and carrying it forward in the Federation’s struggle for equal treatment and first-class status in society. In this banquet address President Jernigan captured the mood of the convention and charted the course for the years ahead.
We must never forget the historic and social significance of our movement or lose perspective in the momentary triumph of victory or sadness of defeat, he told the banquet audience. The course is well-marked and clear. It has been from the beginning; and, unless we lose our nerve or betray our ideals, there can be absolutely no question that the future is ours.
He went on to declare that, more than ever in matters affecting the blind,the choice is fundamentally one of competing philosophies. On one side is the philosophy which regards the blind as innately different and inferior to the sighted. On the other side is the philosophy which regards us as innately normal and equal to the sighted. These two conceptions compete with one another in virtually every area of life from occupation to recreation, and from cradle to grave. One of them regards blindness as a dead end; the other regards it as a live option.
1973: Blindness: Is History Against Us?
For each decade in the life of the National Federation of the Blind, there has been one year in particular that seems to represent a hallmark, somehow capturing and symbolizing the spirit of the age. For the seventies, although each successive year reflected new achievements in the organized blind movement, there was none quite like the year 1973. It was then, as we have noted, that the annual March on Washington was initiated. It was in that year that the national leadership seminars one of the most significant innovations of the first Jernigan presidency got underway. It was in 1973 that the registration of delegates at the annual convention first went over 1,500. And it was in 1973 that the NAC Attack (the demonstrations by the organized blind at top-level NAC meetings) mustered over 1,500 picketers in New York City.
Moreover, it was in 1973, at the New York convention, that President Kenneth Jernigan delivered the first in a series of three annual banquet addresses that represented a distinct departure from his customary style and method though not from his basic philosophy and doctrine. Each of these interconnected speeches presented, in its title, a pertinent and perplexing question about blindness and the blind and then answered it, not merely thoughtfully but on the basis of extensive research. In 1973 the banquet speech was entitled “Blindness: Is History Against Us.” The following year the President’s address bore the title, “Blindness: Is Literature Against Us” and in 1975 it was “Blindness: Is the Public Against Us. ”
The distinctive tone of all of these public addresses was established at the outset. To the questionIs history against us? Jernigan answered with both a yes and a no. We all know what the historical record tells us,he said. It tells us that, until only yesterday, blind people were completely excluded from the ranks of the normal community. Only lately, it would seem, have blind people begun stealthily to emerge from the shadows and to move in the direction of independence and self-sufficiency.
From what histories and historians have told us, said Jernigan, it would seem that the blind have moved through time and the world not only sightless but faceless a people without distinguishing features, anonymous and insignificant not so much as rippling the stream of history.
Nonsense! he exclaimed. That is not fact but fable. That is not truth but a lie. In reality the accomplishments of blind people through the centuries have been out of all proportion to their numbers. There are genius, and fame, and adventure, and enormous versatility of achievement not just once in a great while but again and again, over and over.
Now, said Jernigan, we are at a point in time when the story of the blind (the true and real story) must be told. For too long the blind have been (not unwept, for there has been too much of that) but unhonored and unsung. Let us, at long last, redress the balance and right the wrong. Let us now praise our famous men and celebrate the exploits of blind heroes. Rediscovering our true history, we shall, in our turn, be better able to make history; for when people (seeing or blind) come to know the truth, the truth will set them free.
President Jernigan went on, in this 1973 address, to relate a history of blindness never told before in quite this way, a story not of gloom and doom but of genuine progress and quickening prospect although he pointed out that the history remained unfinished and that the next chapters must be written by the blind themselves.
1974: Blindness: Is Literature Against Us?
In 1974, at the Federation’s convention in Chicago, Kenneth Jernigan undertook a significant variation on the theme of his earlier speech on history and the blind. Last year, he said in his banquet address, I examined with you the place of the blind in history not just what we have done but what the historians have remembered and said we have done. The two, as we found, are vastly different. This year I would like to talk with you about the place of the blind in literature. How have we been perceived? What has been our role? How have the poets and novelists, the essayists and dramatists, seen us? Have they ‘told it like it is,’ or merely liked it as they told it?
In addressing his topic question Blindness: Is Literature Against UsJernigan noted that the literary record reveals no single theme or viewpoint regarding the blind but instead displays a bewildering variety of images. Yet he claimed to find, upon closer examination of the world of fiction and poetry, of myth and fairy tale, a set of nine separate themes or motifs that recurred again and again. These themes were summarized in a graphic list:
- blindness as compensatory or miraculous power;
- blindness as total tragedy;
- blindness as foolishness and helplessness;
- blindness as unrelieved wickedness and evil;
- blindness as perfect virtue;
- blindness as punishment for sin;
- blindness as abnormality or dehumanization;
- blindness as purification;
- blindness as symbol or parable
Each of these recurrent themes was traced to its sources and varied expressions in literature and each one in turn was then exposed as false, fraudulent, or (at best) fictitious in the full sense of the term. In its multitudinous parade of authors and its array of illustrations and examples as well as in the scholarship which lay behind the writing this 1974 address was an effective counterpart to the previous speech on history and historiography and, like that one, its answer to the key question was complicated. Here is how it was summed up:
To the question: “Is literature against us?”, there can be no unqualified response. If we consider only the past, the answer is certainly yes. We have had a bad press. If we consider the present, the answer is mixed. There are signs of change, but the old stereotypes and false images still predominate. If we turn to the future, the answer is that the future in literature as in life is not predetermined but self-determined. As we shape our lives, singly and collectively, so will we shape our literature.
1975: Blindness: Is the Public Against Us?
The 1975 convention of the National Federation of the Blind was again held in Chicago, where the 1972 and 1974 conventions had been so dynamic and successful. The mood of the delegates was confident, enthusiastic, and upbeat as President Jernigan reflected that mood in his banquet address, “Blindness: Is the Public Against Us.”
Despite the exclusions and denials, he said, we are better off now than we have ever been. It is not that conditions are worse today than they were ten or twenty years ago, but only that we are more aware of them. In the past we wouldn’t have known of their existence, and even if we had, we wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it. Today we are organized, and actively in the field. The sound in the land is the march of the blind to freedom. The song is a song of gladness.
The situation of the blind, Jernigan said, had to be viewed in perspective and the behavior of the blind must be flexible enough to meet the need. We must use both love and a club, he said, and we must have sense enough to know when to do which long on compassion, short on hatred; and, above all, not using our philosophy as a cop out for cowardice or inaction or rationalization.
As to the question posed in the title of his speech, Jernigan gave a resounding answer of affirmation and buoyant belief in the future. The public is not against us, he said. Our determination proclaims it; our gains confirm it; our humanity demands it.
This address received a great deal of attention from the media throughout the nation and led to an invitation to Jernigan to speak at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington. The luncheon occurred shortly after the convention, and Jernigan’s Press Club speech (which was a variant of the banquet address) was carried nationwide on National Public Radio.
1976: Blindness: Of Visions and Vultures
When the delegates assembled in Los Angeles for the 1976 National Federation of the Blind convention, they had much to celebrate. Andrew Adams, the commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, had responded affirmatively to their request that federal funds no longer be used to support the regressive National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC); the Federation’s radio and television announcements were blanketing the nation; all fifty states and the District of Columbia were now represented in the organization; and Federation influence and prestige had never been greater. It was in this context and setting that the Federation’s President delivered one of his most stirring banquet addresses, “Blindness: Of Visions and Vultures.”
He began with a parable concerning a vulture sitting in the branches of a dead tree, and there were many in the audience who thought it referred to some of the more custodial agencies in the blindness system. Repeatedly during the speech President Jernigan returned to a central theme. We know who we are, he said, and we will never go back. The vulture sits in the branches of a dead tree, and we see where the wings join the body.
Again in 1976 (as he had done in 1975) Jernigan sounded a note of optimism and hope. It is not, he said, that our situation is worse or our problems greater today than in former times. Far from it. It is only that we have become aware and that our level of expectation has risen. In other days we would hardly have noticed, and even if we had, we would not have been organized to communicate or prepared to resist. We have it better now than we have ever had it before, and tomorrow is bright with promise.
1977: Blindness: To Everything There is a Season
The termination of the nine-year tenure in office which would come to be known as the First Jernigan Presidency came with shocking abruptness in New Orleans in 1977 through the unexpected resignation of the movement’s leader for reasons of health. Jernigan’s resignation, announced at the end of his annual presidential report to the National Convention, left the delegates no choice but to agree on a successor to the highest office. They selected the Federation’s Second Vice President, Ralph Sanders, to fill the vacancy; but, as the Braille Monitor was to report, the voting was unenthusiastic and reluctant. Here is part of what the Monitor had to say about the event:
When President Jernigan announced his resignation at the conclusion of the first day of the convention, the room was filled with cries of No! expressing the unwillingness of Federationists to hear and accept what was being said. As President Jernigan went on to say that were his health to improve he might one day again seek the presidency, he was interrupted once more, this time by a prolonged and tumultuous ovation. This was the first of many outpourings of the intense affection and loyalty to this man felt by the members of the Federation. Both responses recalled the events of a decade earlier when the movement lost the leadership of another giant in the affairs of the blind.
Thus ended the period of unparalleled peace and prosperity within the organized blind movement a period already coming to be known as the democratic decade which had begun with the arrival of Kenneth Jernigan in the presidency and was closing with his unsought and unwanted departure. There was one thing more for him to do before he took his leave: to rise before the largest banquet audience in Federation history (well over 1,700) and deliver what was then regarded as his valedictory address. He made the most of the occasion, as everyone there knew he would taking as his text the Biblical passage which proclaims “To everything there is a season”. President Jernigan began by observing: There was a time for me to be President of this organization. That time is no more. A new President now comes to the stage; a new era now begins in the movement.
He went on: What, then, (at this final banquet on this last night of my presidency) shall I say to you what that we have not already jointly discussed and collectively experienced during the past quarter of a century? In articles and speeches, in public pronouncements, and in literally thousands of letters I have set forth my beliefs and declared my faith in the capacity of the blind and the need for collective action.
As President of the Federation, I have always tried to see our movement in broad context attempting to ease the losses and temper the victories with a sense of perspective. So, on this night, let us talk of history and look to the future assessing where we are by where we have been and where we are going.
The attentive audiences at convention banquets through the democratic decade had often been touched by the eloquence of their President; but on this warm New Orleans evening, sharing an historic moment and dreading its inevitable end, they were moved as rarely before on these significant annual occasions. For they knew, every man and woman in the throng of Federationists, that they were not just talking of history here with their leader and mentor they were making it. This is the speech they heard:
1979: Blindness: That’s How it is at the Top of the Stairs
A National Convention which would later be designated by its key figure as one of the finest episodes in our history took place in the sunshine of Miami Beach during the summer of 1979 when over one thousand members of the National Federation of the Blind gathered in a mood compounded of excitement and determination to dispatch the sowers of internal discord, to map the strategies of a dozen external campaigns, to celebrate a return to solvency, and to reassure each other that old acquaintances were not forgot.
Kenneth Jernigan, who had been restored to the presidency by acclamation only the year before, was to say of this Miami convention that it was one of our very best. There was a mood of closeness and harmony which probably surpassed anything we have ever had. And Ramona Walhof, the national leader who wrote the Monitor’s convention roundup, called it a tremendous experience exciting, informative, uplifting, and spiritually rewarding.
What was remarkable about these accolades, in retrospect, was that they were uttered in reference to a convention which was compelled to deal with an organized campaign by dissident members to take over the Federation and reduce it to the impotence of a loose confederation of autonomous state groups. It might have been an ugly scene; but as it turned out the threat was summarily dispatched by the delegates through a series of decisive actions which left no doubt as to the feelings of the membership and the direction of the movement.
Scarcely less remarkable than the convention’s dispatch of the internal quarrel was its general equanimity in the face of greater and more concerted attacks from without than the organized blind movement had known since the distant days of the civil war in the late fifties. That prevailing mood of confidence and quiet strength found eloquent expression in the banquet speech which President Jernigan delivered at the Miami convention. Addressing the theme “That’s How It Is At The Top of the Stairs”, Jernigan pointed out that the Federation’s rapid growth in power and stature had brought with it, as a natural consequence, a rising tide of opposition amounting to a backlash: No group ever goes from second-class status to first-class citizenship without passing through a period of hostility, he said. Several years ago I made the statement that we had not even come far enough up the staircase of independence for anybody to hate us. I believe I can safely say that that problem has now been solved. We have enemies enough to satisfy even the most militant among us. We have actually progressed to the point of creating a backlash.
He went on to point out that the hardening of opposition and the widening of attacks upon the organized blind movement were cause not for dismay but for satisfaction as graphic evidence of the Federation’s ascent to the higher reaches of the stairway: This is our challenge and our confrontation. It is also the strongest possible proof of how far we have come. For the first time in history, the choice is ours. As other minorities have discovered, the final steps are the hardest.
1980: Blindness: The Lessons of History
In the year of its fortieth anniversary, 1980, the movement of the organized blind found itself embarked upon a new and portentous phase of its career. It had successfully maneuvered the difficult physical transition from the Middle West (Des Moines) to the Eastern Seaboard (Baltimore) in the process purchasing a vast complex of buildings, creating the National Center for the Blind, and multiplying its output of materials. It had also defended itself successfully not to say spectacularly against the journalistic assault in Iowa with the publication and mass statewide distribution of an extraordinary Special Edition of the Braille Monitor (February, 1980) labeled “The Bizarre World of the Des Moines Register: Malicious and Reckless Disregard of the Truth”. (Following that publication, for whatever reason, the Register suddenly ceased its drumbeat of critical attacks against Jernigan and the Commission.) At the same time the Federation was launching new campaigns and reinvigorating older ones in a host of areas where blind people were ill-used and poorly treated in the unfriendly skies of major airlines, in the underpaid and oversheltered workshops, in the conclaves and machinations of the NAC Pack and everywhere that their civil rights were denied or their dignity assailed.
The sense of motion and change, of transition amounting to transformation, and above all of renewed commitment to the objectives of Federationism pervaded the atmosphere of the Leamington Hotel in Minneapolis during convention week, 1980, where some two thousand blind Americans were assembled for the anniversary occasion. Apart from being the largest convention in Federation history, the event epitomized the spirit and character of the NFB’s annual meetings during this volatile era; something was happening at every moment day or night throughout the week something epochal, edifying, or at least engaging.
The fortieth annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind will be remembered by those who attended for the demonstration at the Minneapolis Society for the Blind. Someone raised the question: How can it be militant to do something so productive and really constructive? We knew we were fighting, but no blood was shed. We knew we had won the battle in Minneapolis on July 1 and 2. If what we did was militant, so be it. It was necessary, and victory sounded in the voices of the marchers.
The marchers in that purposeful parade felt that they were making history; the Federationists attending the fortieth anniversary convention felt that they were witnessing history; and the delegates and guests at the convention banquet felt that they were a part of history. Their President himself a figure of historic proportions, a mover and shaker of such undeniable impact as to have become a legend in his time fully understood the historicity of the moment and made it the subject of his banquet address: “Blindness: The Lessons of History.” As he had done in other presidential orations, Jernigan recalled the background of powerlessness and poverty from which the movement had sprung forty years before, and compared it with the affluence and influence of the present day emphasizing that the history of the organized blind was not something that happened to them but something that they made happen. But he also pointed out that their positive action upon the world was bringing about an equal and opposite reaction of negativity in the form of a concerted combination of hostile agency forces dedicated to the sabotage and ultimate demolition of the organized blind movement. Led by the American Foundation for the Blind, he said, this alliance consists of NAC; our breakaway 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.
But Jernigan expressed confidence that the organized blind would prevail again as they had overcome before against the massed hosts of repression, reaction, and regression: 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 than we have ever been, and we have learned well the lessons of history.
1981: Blindness: The Corner of Time
The opening years of the decade of the eighties, which were also the early years of the second Jernigan presidency, might be characterized as the “Era of Rising Expectations” among the blind of the country. No longer was it sufficient merely to have a job if that job was in a sheltered workshop. No longer was it good enough just to receive vocational training if that training was in “blind trades” like basket weaving, chair caning, and broom making. No longer could the airlines arbitrarily prohibit blind passengers from sitting in the designated rows; the blind would not be moved. No longer could the entertainment media casually portray blind persons as bungling, confused, and ridiculous; they could try, but they would regret it. These were only a few of the practices whose prejudicial character had been exposed and their practitioners called to account. But it was not the agencies and professional elites of the blindness system who had rung the bell and sent the message. It was the organized blind, the members of the National Federation, who dared to disturb the universe dared to talk plainly in polite company (such as conventions, government hearings, and NAC meetings) dared to risk displeasure, verbal abuse, and physical intimidation dared, in short, to take the heat. Only the organized blind had the nerve (the unmitigated gall) to picket and march and demonstrate on the public streets, to shout their grievances from the housetops, to say again and again, in one idiom or another: We know who we are, and we will never go back! or: We are the blind. We are the people. We speak for ourselves!
It was not that way always, of course. In fact it had not been that way very long. Even after the founding of the National Federation in 1940, the lives of blind men and women were still ringed around with insecurity, their movements tentative, their brains washed. But the coming of the NFB had opened the door and let in the air of freedom the breath of opportunity the impossible dream of equality. The new age had begun, as Kenneth Jernigan was to say, and the blind had turned a corner of time. After that they would never turn back.
That was part of the message President Jernigan delivered to the Federation and to the world in 1981 at the National Convention in Baltimore. He called his speech “Blindness: The Corner of Time,” and he spoke of critical junctures and turning points in the history of the organized blind. At first the Federation was small and ignored, he said. Most of the agencies tried to deny its difference, pretending that it was simply another of themselves, one among many. In some parts of the country our chapters were weak and our purpose blurred. Sometimes the agencies took control of our affiliates, bought off the leaders or bribed and threatened.
But the direction was certain and the trend unmistakable, Jernigan declared. The blind kept joining first by the thousands, then by the tens of thousands. In the beginning we were weak and divided. Then came accelerating power and unity. Ultimately we were fifty thousand members clear in our mission, sure in our purpose, and firm in our unity: the strongest force in the affairs of the blind.
The organized blind, he said, had turned the corner of time. But the problem was that not many others in the field had kept pace with them in their progress and transition; the most reactionary of the agencies (those that turned back at the corner of time) even joined forces and pooled their efforts back in the fifties to resist the organizing efforts of the blind: Hard though it is to comprehend or believe, their purpose (which became a veritable obsession and a principal endeavor) was to make war upon the blind, the very people they were pledged to serve. Not all of the blind not the meek or the passive or the ones they could control: these were needed for show and fundraising. Only the troublemakers the independents the members of the National Federation of the Blind. Above everything else, they wanted to destroy the National Federation of the Blind and its leaders.
The NFB’s President went on to observe that, when those destructive efforts failed and the organized blind grew too powerful to crush, attitudes softened in the blindness system and numbers of agencies summoned the will and the sensibility to approach the present and turn the corner of time. These had become partners and allies of the organized blind, prepared to walk with them (if not to march with them) and to turn the next corner of time without looking back. Lagging behind them, he said, were other agencies with good intentions but poor understanding of the new reality and the new world; for these there was hope, and toward these there should be toleration. But what about the others? he went on. What about NAC and its principal allies? They are not misinformed or confused, and they are not motivated by good intentions. They know exactly what they are doing. They have deliberately and cold-bloodedly set out to ruin our movement and destroy the reputations and careers of our leaders.
Jernigan thereupon proceeded to document and itemize an incredible succession of accusations, insults, physical assaults, break-ins, and other episodes of hooliganism and harassment directed against leaders of the organized blind movement at various levels throughout the country during the years just past incidents which he charged had all the earmarks of an orchestrated campaign. But he leveled a blunt warning to all those still filled with hate and still dwelling mentally amid the straw and broomcorn of the workhouse, that their time was fast running out: They will either learn to respect us and treat us as equal human beings, or they will go out of business. It is that simple, that definite, and that final. And he concluded with these ringing words:
Upon the rock of Federationism we have built our movement, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it! For the first time in history we can play a decisive role in determining our own destiny. What we in the Federation do during the next decade may well determine the fate of the blind for a century to come. We have turned the corner of time, and we live in a newness. My brothers and my sisters, the future is ours! Come! Join me on the barricades and we will make it all come true.
1982: Blindness: Simplicity, Complexity, and the Public Mind
In 1982, speaking before a banquet audience at the Minneapolis convention, President Jernigan again struck the same major chord: Our basic problem in 1940 was society’s misconceptions and misunderstandings, he said. That is still our problem today. But then he noted a significant difference between the early days and the present hour:
In 1940 we were not organized and had not yet developed our philosophy, planned our public education campaigns, worked to eliminate our own false beliefs and misconceptions, or started the slow process of bringing society to new ways of perceiving and understanding. For the blind of the country, the greatest single difference between 1940 and today (and it is a tremendous difference) is the fact of the National Federation of the Blind our concerted effort, our carefully thought out philosophy, our mutual encouragement and assistance, and our absolute determination to achieve first-class citizenship. Yes, we have learned it the hard way but we have learned it. We know who we are, and we will never go back.
The President’s theme was a new iteration of one which had been treated before the public mind and its misconceptions and that provided him with both a subtheme, Simplicity, and a contrapuntal theme, Complexity. For the unchanged patterns of the public mind, the permanence of social attitudes, suggested an underlying simplicity and sameness; but the changes in the lives of blind people through four decades, the impact of self-organization, and the evolution of competence and confidence, was making for a new complexity in the field of blindness and the affairs of the blind. All of these were elements (unresolved and mixed together) in the title of his speech but not without the hope of future synthesis and balance. The 1982 banquet address one of the best-remembered of the second Jernigan presidency was entitled “Blindness: Simplicity, Complexity, and the Public Mind.”
1983: Blindness: The Other Half of Inertia
Today we are moving with a mighty force, said the President of the National Federation of the Blind in 1983: For 43 years we have worked and struggled to accelerate our movement and send it in a straight line toward freedom and independence. The efforts of tens of thousands of blind men and women have been spent for almost two generations to reach the current momentum.
Now, he said, there is no force on earth that can slow us down or turn us back or change our direction. He went on to declare that the organized blind would wait no longer for equality and opportunity to be granted or handed to them: Through the centuries we have yearned for acceptance, longed for opportunity, and dreamed of a full life. And too often we have waited. But no more! Never again! The waiting did not work. We have learned our lesson and learned it well. Equality will not (perhaps cannot) be given to us. If we want it, we must take it. So the waiting is over. The yearning and the longing are at an end. And not just someday or tomorrow but now! From this day forward it will be action. Let people call us what they will and think what they please. We are simply no longer willing to be second-class citizens. We want no strife or confrontation, but we will do what we have to do. To the extent required we will meet pressure with pressure and force with force. We know who we are, and we will never go back.
It was not so much the message of Kenneth Jernigan’s convention speech that was novel in the year 1983; it was rather the tone and spirit that struck a different note from past occasions when the organized blind movement was struggling to survive and embroiled in civil wars or uphill battles against powerful agency forces. By 1983, when Jernigan spoke of the other half of inertia at the National Convention in Kansas City, the Federation had arrived at a new plateau of peace, prosperity, and progress. Peace for the National Federation of the Blind was not only the absence of war within it was also the presence of a new mood and temper throughout the movement, a prevailing self-assurance that spoke of solidarity and quiet strength, of prestige and unprecedented influence in the blindness system and the public at large.
We have found the other half of inertia,said the President in his banquet speech,and we are generating the force to make our dreams reality. Yes, we still experience discrimination, denial, and lack of opportunity; but the tide is running the other way. It can be seen in our victories in the sheltered shops; in our radio and television spots, which blanket the nation; and in the jobs which blind people are getting and holding. It can be seen in the hope, the determination, and the zest for the future which blind people now are feeling. It can be seen in the mood and the joy of this convention.
1984: Blindness: The Circle of Sophistry
An increasing number of us are living our Federationism on a daily basis, knowing it to be our passport to freedom. We must finish our march to acceptance and full membership in society. Our heritage requires it; our purpose proclaims it; our humanity demands it. This cause of ours is a sacred trust. It is worthy of all that we have or can ever hope to be and we shall not fail.
So spoke the President of the National Federation of the Blind at the banquet of the National Convention in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1984. The twelve months just ended had been one of the most successful times in the organization’s history, and the convention was a celebration of that fact but it was more. It was a time to review the problems and triumphs of the past year and to chart the course for the year ahead. In his report to the members at the convention President Jernigan said:
One way to measure our progress during the past year is by the increasing amount of recognition we have received from public officials throughout the country. This year more governors declared National Federation of the Blind Month, Week, or Day in their states than ever before in history. Last year a number of us went to Vice President Bush’s office to talk with him about issues affecting the blind. This year we met with President Reagan in the Oval Office at the White House.
During the past year, President Jernigan continued, we have made greater progress than ever before in getting our message to the public through the media. The October 1, 1983, issue of Vital Speeches carried the 1983 banquet speech Blindness: The Other Half of Inertia.Vital Speeches goes to every college and university in the country and to many of the nation’s high schools. Our spots now saturate the airwaves. Not only are our messages used on local stations but they are also carried by most of the networks. On November 30 Peggy Pinder and Barbara Pierce appeared for an eight-minute segment on the television program “Hour Magazine”. Used by 160 television stations, this is one of the most popular daytime TV shows in the country. On April 13 of this year we were featured on the “Today” show. We had eleven minutes to tell our story to one of the largest television audiences in the nation.
In the rest of his 1984 report President Jernigan detailed a variety of problems and triumphs. Then, he said in conclusion:When you look back over the past year, you cannot help but feel joy and satisfaction at what we have accomplished. Yes, there have been problems and battles, but what an absolutely wonderful year we have had! We have kept the faith with Dr. tenBroek and the other founders of our movement, and we have kept the faith with ourselves. We have lived the dream and fulfilled the promise.
As always, the banquet was the climax of the convention; and when President Jernigan rose to make his banquet address, he talked of the damage which sophistry had done to the blind:
The clever and plausible but false and misleading arguments (the propositions which put us down and keep us out) are temptingly easy to accept and believe, he said. With respect to the blind the message is clear and uncomplicated: The blind lack eyesight. Other people have it. Sight is important. Therefore, the blind are inferior. We are unable to compete. We must be taken care of. We cannot hold jobs not, that is, unless the work is very simple, very repetitive, and very subsidized. We cannot raise children, travel independently, or manage our own lives. This is the traditional norm, the time-honored belief; and if it is true, we should face it, not fight or deny it. But, of course, this is not the way it is, he said to a roaring response from his audience; and no sophistry on earth can make it that way.
1985: Blindness: The Pattern of Freedom
In 1985 at the annual convention banquet Kenneth Jernigan delivered what was to be his penultimate address as the Federation’s President. Speaking on the topic, “Blindness: The Pattern of Freedom,” Jernigan drew the attention of his audience to the parallels between the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, involving the rising demands of blacks for freedom, and the civil rights battle of the eighties, involving the rising demands of the blind for freedom. It was, he said, in both cases, the same pattern of freedom. With regard to the black movement,As long as the law made it impossible for them to buy or rent certain property, required them to attend segregated schools, made them ride at the back of the bus, and even said they must use separate water fountains and toilets, all of the self-belief and public education in the world would not be sufficient. They had to change the laws and the interpretation of the laws, and they did change them.
And Jernigan went on to declare: Our situation is parallel. We must fight in the courts and the Congress. Judges order children to be taken from blind parents on the ground that the blind cannot raise them; airline officials tell us we cannot occupy exit row seats and that we must sit on blankets for fear we cannot control our bladders; insurance companies deny us coverage; amusement parks refuse to let us ride; health clubs decline to let us in; and employers routinely discriminate. Unless we can move toward equal treatment under the law, self-belief and public education will not be sufficient and cannot be sustained. And he pointed out that the changes in the law could not be accomplished without confrontation.
President Jernigan’s banquet address spelled out the full context legal, moral, and political within which certain basic rights were then being debated and would be decided: the right to fly, the right to a chance for a decent education, the right to bear and raise children, the right to receive training with the special tools and techniques needed by the blind, the right to equal opportunity to employment, and the right to be recognized and accepted as normal human beings. It was truly a civil rights speech in the great tradition of such orations and in that sense it evoked and embodied the essential keynote of the organized blind movement. It summarized the philosophy of freedom in practical terms delineating the steps essential to the integration of a minority into the broader society. It called for action, and demanded that the philosophy of equality be made real. The keynote was freedom and not merely in theory. Freedom means power to do specific things power to be left alone, power to travel, power to sit where one chooses, and power to become an element within the overall pattern of freedom.
1986: Blindness: The Coming of the Third Generation
Presidential terms are for two years in the National Federation of the Blind. In 1984 President Jernigan had told the delegates that while he intended to stand for election that year, he would definitely not be a candidate in 1990. He left open the question as to whether he would stand for election in 1988 or even 1986. In 1985 he told the convention that he would not be a candidate in 1986. He said he felt that many organizations destroyed themselves by not planning for an orderly succession to their top offices and, particularly, by not allowing for a long enough period of transition in the change of executives.
This was a subject which Jernigan had been discussing at the leadership seminars from the time of the mid-seventies. He felt that he should step aside as President some time during the mid-eighties and then assist in the training of a new leader. The membership repeatedly and overwhelmingly expressed its wish that he continue as President, but in 1985 he announced that a new President must be elected in 1986.
He told the convention delegates that he intended to support Marc Maurer for the presidency in 1986 and that he was making his feelings known so that anyone who had other ideas would have time and opportunity to promote other candidates. In 1986 Maurer was unanimously elected, and the Jernigan presidency ended. Shortly thereafter, Jernigan accepted the unsalaried position of Executive Director of the Federation, working through the remainder of the decade to assist the new President in the duties of the office.
At the 1986 convention, one year after describing the “Pattern of Freedom”, Kenneth Jernigan made his final banquet speech as President to the convention of the National Federation of the Blind. This final summation, entitled, “Blindness: The Coming of the Third Generation,” spoke of the urgent need for self expression of the blind in the context of the fourth dimension time. The striving of blind people to make themselves heard through the organized blind movement had been proceeding for forty-six years. How could the spirit of independence and the urgency and immediacy of the need be kept alive and poignant for the decades ahead? What could be expected to be built on the solid and substantial foundation of philosophy and practice developed in the Federation from its beginning? These questions were central to the final banquet address of the Jernigan presidency, delivered in Kansas City, Missouri, on July 3, 1986.
Many organizations (and some countries) have ceased to be significant because their leaders have failed to consider the effects of time. But in the Federation plans had been made for the third generation, the fourth generation, and the fourth dimension. The maturity of the organized blind movement can be seen by the degree of care that it gave in planning for the decades to come. As Jernigan said, “The progress of a people toward civilization can probably best be measured by the degree to which it is concerned with time.”
1990; The Federation at Fifty
As was appropriate on this landmark occasion, Dr. Jernigan delivered the very special banquet address. Entitled The Federation at Fifty, this stirring and thought-provoking speech was unlike any banquet address we have ever been given. It was filled with recollections and passages from fascinating letters that illustrated Dr. Jernigan’s explication of the roots and first flowering of the National Federation of the Blind. The tone was more reflective and thoughtful than usual, and the audience hung on every word. Dr. Jernigan’s insight into our history and his blazing affirmation of our hopes and dreams for the future united the Federation audience to face the challenges ahead with joy and commitment. The closing words of the speech captured the essence of its promise and our commitment to ourselves and to the blind:
I think that the new generation that is on the horizon will provide leaders and members who will be present fifty years from now when we meet for our hundredth anniversary. We must never forget our history. We must never dishonor our heritage. We must never abandon our mission. With love for each other and faith in our hearts, we must go the rest of the way to equal status and first-class membership in society. My brothers and my sisters, let us march together to meet that future.
Following this deeply inspiring address, we heard briefly from several distinguished officials at the head table. These included Nell Carney, Sandra Parrino, Frank Kurt Cylke, Susan Parker, and Euclid Herie all of whom had already taken part in the convention program. We were delighted to have these distinguished officials and friends as guests at our banquet.
The banquet address was delivered by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, President Emeritus of the National Federation of the Blind; and for the first time in Federation history the speech was broadcast live using real audio. That evening people around the world with access to computer systems equipped with soundcards, real audio software, and Windows could (and still can) listen to the actual live broadcast of the banquet address. The title of Dr. Jernigan’s address was “The Day after Civil Rights.” The entire tex, streaming, and downloadable audio archives of this address appears below. A short excerpt will suggest the flavor and the argument:
But there comes a day after civil rights. There must. Otherwise the first three stages (satisfying hunger, finding jobs, and getting civil rights) have been in vain. The laws, the court cases, the confrontations, the jobs, and even the satisfying of hunger can never be our prime focus. They are preliminary. It is not that they disappear. Rather it is that they become a foundation on which to build.
Legislation cannot create understanding. Confrontation cannot create good will, mutual acceptance, and respect. For that matter, legislation and confrontation cannot create self-esteem. The search for self-esteem begins in the period of civil rights, but the realization of self-esteem must wait for the day after civil rights.