By Daniel J. Vance
Most Americans wouldn't get upset hearing someone say the word "for" rather than "of" in a sentence. But at the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind (NFB), hearing "for" often grates the ear the way fingernails do scratching a slate blackboard.
NFB, with 50,000 members, is the nation's largest membership organization of blind persons, advocating for all 1.1 million blind Americans.
"When people mistakenly call us the National Federation for [rather than of] the blind, we don't care for it at all," said NFB Director of Community Relations Pat Maurer in a telephone conversation. "We are an organization made up of blind people and, just as importantly, we are managed by blind people."
If "for" were in NFB's name, Maurer said it would imply that all its managers were people with sight.
The man responsible for making NFB into such a powerful advocate of the blind was Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who worked with the group in one capacity or another from 1952 through his 1998 death.
In 1988-95 I lived in Baltimore, Maryland, only four blocks from Dr. Jernigan's antebellum brick home off Augusta Avenue. We were introduced to each other at a community organization meeting. Above all, I remember his impeccable dress, his strong will, and the "presence" he carried entering a room.
Born blind in 1926 and raised on a Tennessee farm, Jernigan graduated from college with honors, and in 1949 was named the nation's most outstanding blind student. He also earned a Masters from Peabody College, where he wrote for the school newspaper.
From 1958-78 he was Director of the Iowa State Commission for the Blind. President Lyndon Johnson honored his work there by saying, "If a person must be blind, it is better to be blind in Iowa than anywhere else in the nation or in the world."
Some of his best gifts to the nation were his inspiring speeches and writings that urged blind people to develop self-confidence. For example, in one 1997 speech he said, "If I had to sum up my personal philosophy in a single sentence, it would probably be this: Do all you can to help yourself before you call on somebody else; [and] try to make life better for those around you."
In most every way, the NFB of 2003 is a mirror image of Jernigan's "pull 'em up by the bootstraps" persona.