Monday, January 21, 2008

The Persons and the People

Today is the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He would have been 79.

Recently I was in Memphis at an activist gathering, and as part of the weekend's activities, we toured the National Civil Rights Museum as a group. If you don't know it, check out the website at This is a very nice museum, renovated from the old Lorraine Motel building, though with some awfully steep ramps for chair users. Anyway, it's set up in a way that has you end right by the balcony of the Lorraine where Dr. King was shot and died on April 4, 1968. The little patch of bloodstained concrete on the balcony has long since been repaired by a square concrete patch, and the visitor has to stay inside behind a glass wall in the exhibit room between the old motel rooms 306 and 308. You can lean on the railing and look out across the street to wherever it was whoever killed him (James Earl Ray's guilt being disputed) was waiting.

Our group had an evening tour, so while I dutifully leaned on the railing and looked out, there was a beautiful moonrise to ponder, but on each side of me were the motel rooms made up to look as they had in 1968. And those really got me to thinking about the day to day life of organizing, about the travel (whether local or national), the constant pushing, the milling of information, the never ending to-do list, the people you meet, the people who don't like you, the people who help you, the committees, the letters, the phone calls, the media, the deadlines, the discussions, the conflicts and tensions, all of it. Some people love it, some hate it, but as far as I can tell, people do it because it must be done. In this, I see Dr. King as an individual I can relate to (although I'm sure his workload was exponentially larger).

Dr. King is obviously different than me in several ways. He was black; I am white. He was a man; I am a woman. He had no apparent disability that I know of; I am deaf. He was a minister; I do not have a religion. People wanted to kill him; I don't think anyone wants to kill me. And yet I appreciate some of the labor that went into his work, and I hope to go on appreciating and learning.

We in the disability rights movement, and also in the Deaf community, have no real current individuals who serve in the role that Dr. King did for the civil rights movement. The nation recognizes no one who we instantly know speaks for people with disabilities. We have good, even amazing leaders, outstanding organizers, brilliant policymakers, but I don't think we have a cult of personality per se or a spokesperson (I don't want a spokesperson, do you?). And yet speaking personally, I think that learning about individual people who organized and resisted serves to make us stronger, to see what is possible in the individual.

Growing up, I read like a fiend (whether this was due to my hearing loss, I'm not sure). I remember learning Dr. King's story when I was about seven. When I was eight, my dad brought me home a bunch of old educational stories my school was dumping off...but they were kid versions of the lives of people like Susan B. Anthony, Marcus Garvey, Reies Lopez Tijerina, Geronimo. I read about Gandhi. When I was fourteen, one of my Christmas presents was The Autobiography of Malcolm X (I asked for it). All of these people struck me as doing something new, something different, something to try to resolve matters of justice. I continue to seek out the stories of diverse people (especially women with disabilities) who have sought to make change, such as Wilma Mankiller (has a disability), Annie Dodge Wauneka (had several disabled children), and (obviously) Frida Kahlo (had multiple disabilities).

In fact, I got my start in the disability rights movement through the stories of individuals. In college, I worked on the Disability Rights Movement archive collection at the University of California, Berkeley. I got to sort the papers of folks like Ed Roberts, Patrisha Wright, and Hale Zukas. I learned about Dr. Frank Bowe and Deaf President Now. Later I learned more about ADAPT leaders: Wade Blank, Bob Kafka, Stephanie Thomas, Mike Ervin in Chicago. In looking at these people's work, I began to see how they connected with others and how that, ultimately (in my opinion), is the secret of how they have helped shepherd change.

I think Chicago, too, where I live, is a place full of people folks should pay a lot more attention order to see the largeness of their people's struggle. We're not just Haymarket and Emma Goldman's final resting place. We're moving on, building on what came before us. The world should know about folks like Elvira Arellano and Rudy Lozano, but most importantly for me, there are a lot of people here in the disability and Deaf communities whose lives are so wildly interesting you can't help but get sucked into the community's issues. I don't really want to embarrass anyone by naming names because you're all too modest, but folks, your organizing labor is worthy of being honored on Freedom Day.