Leader For the Blind

Posted July 18, 2005 at 2:34pm

“Walking alone,” with its goal of independence, and “marching together” with its goal of solidarity and a shared mission, has become a rallying cry of the National Federation of the Blind. It was also the way that the group’s founder lived his life, as revealed by Floyd Matson, author of “Blind Justice: Jacobus tenBroek and the Vision of Equality.”

Matson’s book, which was recently published by the Library of Congress’ National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, tells the story of tenBroek’s “two callings.” First is his work as a “leader of blind men,” who believed the blind are much more capable than generally realized of holding down normal jobs and running their own affairs. Second is his work as a “constitutional scholar” and “master teacher” who fought for equality under law, not only for the blind, but also for Japanese-Americans, black Americans, the poor and the physically handicapped.

“The struggle for equality was at the center of everything that he did,” said Matson, a professor of American Studies at the University of Hawaii and a longtime collaborator of tenBroek’s.

When tenBroek created the NFB in 1940, many agencies and institutions existed that advocated “for” the blind, but tenBroek’s was the first group “of” the blind, as Marc Maurer, the group’s current president, notes in the book’s preface.

The idea of the blind leading the blind was “revolutionary,” according to Matson, because they had always been viewed as helpless members of society, limited in the workplace to a few “tired, exhausted, obsolete trades, called the blind trades,” such as caning chairs, making mops and, possibly, if they were talented, tuning pianos.

Through his personal example and public advocacy, tenBroek helped to change all that.

Matson’s book describes the federation’s first convention in Wilkes Barre, Pa., which took place in November 1940, as a watershed moment.

“This is the first recognition on the part of blind people and the first recognition on the part of the wider society that — just possibly — blind people are no different from everyone else,” Matson said. As a result of the NFB’s work, Matson argued that the blind community has been led “out of darkness, out of a bondage of a kind.”

The NFB now has 700 local chapters and 50,000 members. It continues to act as a vehicle for collective self-expression by the blind. Less than two months ago, it participated in a rally outside the Education Department to protest the Bush administration’s plan to close 10 regional offices of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, the largest federal program helping states provide job training to people with disabilities.

The biography also recounts tenBroek’s hard-fought successes in the academic world.

Blinded by an arrow while playing with a friend at the age of 7, tenBroek nonetheless earned doctoral and law degrees at the University of California at Berkeley. As a law student, he wrote five law review articles and was selected by Harvard Law School for a Louis Brandeis Research Fellowship. TenBroek taught briefly at the University of Chicago Law School.

TenBroek joined Berkeley’s Speech Department in 1942, becoming a full professor in 1953 and chairman of the department in 1955. In 1963, he accepted an appointment as professor of political science.

TenBroek instilled in his undergraduate students a passion for the law by employing the type of vigorous Socratic method used in law schools. If a student dared to walk into class late hoping that the blind professor would not notice, tenBroek would stun them, according to Matson, by calling out their name based on the unique sound each student made.

His former students remain so devoted to the professor who died of cancer in 1968 at age 56 that they formed the TenBroek Society in the 1990s to foster analytical thought pertaining to matters of conscience, personal liberty and civil liberties.

Matson believes that tenBroek’s inability to land a permanent teaching position on a law school faculty fueled his determination to advocate on behalf of the blind.

“Blind people throughout history have carried a cross,” Matson said. “A cross, a burden that they carry, which is that no matter what they do, no matter what proof they give you, no matter what demonstration of ability, in the end, they are rejected. And they are rejected because they are blind, not because they can’t do it.”

First and always a champion of the blind, tenBroek also spoke out on behalf of the rights of Japanese-Americans. In “Prejudice, War, and the Constitution,” which was published in 1954, tenBroek offered a comprehensive indictment of the Supreme Court’s Korematsu decision that upheld the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

TenBroek also contributed to the struggle for black equality.

When Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was preparing the NAACP’s re-argument of the school segregation cases, he requested in writing a meeting with tenBroek. The meeting never came about due to scheduling conflicts but the NAACP, according to Marshall, still took “full advantage” of tenBroek’s work, “The Anti-Slavery Origins of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The Library of Congress’ National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped published tenBroek’s biography in conjunction with the Friends of Libraries for Blind and Physically Handicapped Individuals in North America.

According to NLS Director Frank Kurt Cylke, “Blind Justice” is the third in a series of books about the blind community. The other two are James Wilson’s “Biography of the Blind,” which documents success stories of the blind throughout history, and “Braille Into The Next Millennium,” a collection of essays on the value and history of braille.