by Tom Bickford
From the Editor: Tom Bickford is well known to many in the Federation both because of his tenure in the organization and his notoriety as a songwriter, singer, and as the author of The Care and Feeding of the Long White Cane. Here is an amazing account of his observations about the National Federation of the Blind during his sixty years as a member:
Thank you. In the beginning there were seven states, as we know. The president of the Pennsylvania Federation of the Blind, Gayle Burlingane, invited other states to come to his 1940 convention to form a regional—or perhaps larger—organization. And larger is what happened. Six states responded: Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California. I’m not going to tell you all the people who came; that’s more names than I can say. Those people got together in a separate room and organized the National Federation of the Blind. Because of the Federation you and I can live the lives we want to live. The NFB taught me what to do, how to do it, and then gave me a good shove and said, “Now go out and do it,” so I have.
The most important influence in my years of blindness has been the National Federation of the Blind. In 1955—that was sixty years ago—I enrolled in the Orientation Center for the Blind in California, where I met Kenneth Jernigan and the National Federation of the Blind. And when you met Kenneth Jernigan, you for sure met the National Federation of the Blind. At the orientation center Jernigan gave of himself to the students in many ways. Here’s one example: in men’s gymnasium class, where he both taught and participated, there were several goals that he set for us to achieve in order to earn a steak dinner that he would buy for us. I got my steak dinner for 370 continuous jump ropes. No, I couldn’t do it now. A couple of years after I graduated from the orientation center, my mother said to me once, “When you came back, you weren’t the same person that we sent to that orientation center.” And I say that was good!
Live the life you want. At one time a friend of mine said to me I had taught her how to walk with a cane. That surprised me because I had never given her any lessons. She said she just paid attention to what I did, then did the same. Another time, a lady I knew who was married to a blind friend of mine said that I had helped her husband so much. Again, what had I done? I had offered him my friendship and shared experiences with him, which included taking him to some Federation meetings, and I’m sure that most of you here in the room have had this same experience: sharing your lives with other blind people and showing the Federation to the world. [Applause]
Employment is one of the areas that the Federation has worked on from the beginning. First, getting financial aid for blind people, then helping blind people to believe in ourselves and giving us the confidence and determination to find employment so we can live the lives we want. We’re not going to get tired of that phrase, are we? In about 1950 the Federation began the work to open the federal civil service to blind people. The law case of Russell Kletzing, himself a blind lawyer, was the opening battle in that war. Kletzing later served two terms as president of the National Federation in the mid-1960s.
We have the capable and eager members. We have the determination. We have a lawyer’s division of our own. We have the capable and willing lawyers to help us on our side, we just heard from one. Both Kenneth Jernigan and Marc Maurer and many others have used the word “love.” The English language is not always very specific in its usages. The Greek language has three words, all of which can be translated into English as “love.” When we say “love” we sometimes would think of what the Greeks would call “eros,” romantic love. That’s not the kind of love I’m thinking of now, although we are fully capable of that kind of love—good for us. The next word is “philia,” which is usually translated as “brotherly love.” That’s closer to my thought, but it’s still not the one I want. I think of the Federation kind of love as “agape,” A-G-A-P-E, agape: kindly concern or predetermined goodwill. Before I meet you to know you individually, I want good things for you. We want good things for each other. [Applause] Dr. Jernigan, at his last convention in 1998, said, “Why do we do these things for each other?” And he answered his own question: love. That, I think, is agape—kindly concern or predetermined goodwill.
Dr. Maurer in 2002 said, “And love, freely given, is at least as demanding as any other taskmaster.” I will say it again, “And love, freely given, is at least as demanding as any other taskmaster.” We take that seriously. Love, given to us freely, requires many things of us. Love is why we buy raffle tickets. [Laughter] Love is why we give door prizes for other people to win. Love is why we write letters to our state and federal officials and attend hearings. Love is why we go to our own meetings and greet each other.
The world changes, and so does the NFB. In 1957 we adopted the small, round membership pin with words, “Security, Equality, Opportunity.” Those words are still in our NFB pledge. In 2002 we adopted the Whozit as our logo. Last year, President Riccobono kept the Whozit and put six of them around in a circle. In 1968 two New Yorkers, Floyd Fields and Josephine Huff introduced what they wanted to be the official NFB song. Other people wanted in on the act, so we had a year-long contest. In 1969 their song, “The NFB Battle Hymn” that we know much better as “Glory, Glory Federation” was adopted as the official song. This year, for the seventy-fifth anniversary, James Brown will introduce a new song to us. It shows up on the Friday agenda. After all, musical tastes have changed in the last forty-six years, so we’re changing with the times. After the first song contest the musical ideas just broke forth; everybody wanted a song. We started hearing songs that had already been sung, and new songs appeared as the time occurred. When it was time to tell United Airlines that blind people should keep our canes with us in the plane, we gave them back their own music: [singing] “Don’t fly unfriendly skies of United/don’t take our long white canes/we have the right to be free/We take care of ourselves/we’re the NFB.” [applause]
A couple of years ago an air hostess wanted to take my cane from where I had it between my seat and the wall of the plane. I said, “No, it can stay here, that case has been to court.” She dropped the subject.
The most prolific songwriter I met was Ted Young of Pennsylvania. I met him at a Chicago convention one year, and one of the songs I learned from him had to do with getting more help than we sometimes need. Here’s the chorus: “Helping, helping, helping, helping/sometimes it’s help that I can use/but sometimes I feel like yelping/especially from a ‘helping’ bruise.” After the convention who should I meet in the airport but some Pennsylvania delegates. We were in the “helping” area where the airport had asked us to wait to be assisted to our departure gates. The dear little ground hostess would come running up in quite a dither, and she’d say, “Who’s next?” And then she’d take somebody off to their departure gate. Those of us who were still there smiled at each other and sang, “Helping, helping, helping, helping/sometimes it’s help that I can use/but sometimes I feel like yelping/especially from a ‘helping’ bruise.”
In 1990, the fiftieth anniversary, three of my Maryland friends—Debbie Brown, Lloyd Rasmussen, and Judy Rasmussen made use of their time waiting in the restaurant line to compose the “Ode to the Code”: “Going to the school/to write an IEP/the teacher says use print, because your child can see/the equipment is too big/and large print is too rare/and fifteen words a minute will not get you anywhere./Oh, Braille is here/Braille is here/Braille is here to stay/We will keep on using it/we don’t care what you say/ Braille is here/Braille is here/we will sing its praise/it’s the system for the blind/to get a job that pays.”
These songs and many more are on the NFB’s website—check them out, learn them, sing them, write some more of your own. I plan to keep coming back and singing, as long as money and health hold out. You do the same! Thank you.