Hollis Liggett: The Man, The Legend

by Charles S.P. Hodge

Hollis Liggett was born into a dirt-poor family in rural Tennessee on July 20, 1923. He became totally blind at a very young age. His rural roots are reflected throughout his writings. He was lucky enough to obtain a scholarship, and he attended Lambuth College, graduating in 1949. During his stay at Lambuth he met his future wife, Margaret, who was one year behind him. Again with scholarship help, Hollis attended Duke University, graduating with a master's degree of divinity in 1950. He became ordained as a Methodist minister, and married Margaret during the summer of 1950. 

Hollis began to preach before small rural congregations and despite his self-effacing manner, his preaching style from the pulpit was charismatic, moving and highly effective. He and his new wife settled in Memphis, where they both became active in the Memphis Association of the Blind, which at that time was the local chapter of the Tennessee Federation of the Blind. Hollis went door to door selling blind-made corn-tassel brooms in order make a living, but as the Liggett family began to grow, it became clear that a more lucrative form of work had to be found. Good fortune once again found the Liggetts as Hollis qualified and was awarded a vending location at the Memphis City Hall. Hollis and Margaret took to the vending operation like ducks to water, but they did chafe under some constraints and restrictions imposed upon them by the state-run business enterprise program. So, Hollis exercised an option available to him, and he purchased from the state his vending machines and his inventory, thus converting his City Hall vending location into an independent business operation.

The City Hall vending location enabled Hollis to meet and become friends with many of the movers and shakers in Memphis business, politics and civic affairs. These contacts and friendships would become useful and important as years went by. Meanwhile the Liggett family had grown to a brood of five offspring, four daughters and one son. Parenting and family obligations were commanding more of Hollis' attention and time.

Yet in the aftermath of what had taken place at the NFB's 1958 national convention at Boston, critics of the national leadership were informed in no uncertain terms that their submissions to "The Braille Monitor" would never be published in the magazine. In response, a number of the dissenters from the NFB leadership's party-line policy formed the Braille Free Press Association (BFPA) with the stated intention of publishing a magazine which would be open to all points of view from throughout the blindness community. 

Durward McDaniel had heard of this blind minister and successful vending operator from Memphis, and he had a hunch that Liggett would be the right person to be the editor of the Braille Free Press. So, McDaniel came to Memphis and stayed as a houseguest in the Liggetts' home. The two men talked late into the night, and McDaniel presented Liggett with irrefutable proof that only submissions which were favorable to the NFB's national leadership would be published in "The Braille Monitor." Instinctively from his rural roots and upbringing, and from his Biblical studies, Liggett knew right from wrong, and the NFB's one-sided and exclusionary policies were antithetical to his principles of fair play and of a free and balanced press. The next evening, McDaniel made a presentation before the Memphis Association of the Blind (MAB) about the BFPA -- its goals and objectives -- and its vital and urgent need for seed money donations in order to get the project off the ground and running. A motion was made from the floor which was duly seconded that the MAB make a donation to the BFPA in the amount of $400. The motion was then adopted. So, McDaniel had his seed money donation in hand; now he had to convince a reluctant Liggett to accept the editor's role. In the end, McDaniel's winning argument was the urgent need and necessity for the blindness community to have an objective and open alternative magazine. 

Although still reluctant and self-effacing, Liggett agreed -- with assurances of ongoing support and assistance from the BFPA's growing network of members throughout the country -- to accept the editor's position of the envisioned Braille Free Press. Now came the daunting task of making "The Braille Free Press" into a functioning reality. In fact, the first issue of "The Braille Free Press" (BFP) was published in the fall of 1958. Hollis' signed articles were filled with the conviction and passion of a new convert to the underlying and righteous cause for the very existence of the BFP. He would occasionally sprinkle in some Biblical imagery and even a verse or two from the Bible. Some of his readers were captivated by the fire and zeal of Hollis' writings while other readers felt and responded to the spirituality contained in those writings. 

The BFP was being produced on a shoe-string budget, and those who subscribed to and received the magazine were strongly encouraged after reading to pass the magazine to someone who did not get the BFP and for that person to pass the issue on to a third person with the same instructions. Thus, while the subscription list for the BFP may have seemed relatively small to some observers, the ever-growing network of those reading the BFP and being informed about what was truly going on in the NFB was inspiring and amazing. With each new issue of the BFP, Liggett's crusading reputation and legendary status grew exponentially.

However, shielded in his local cocoon in Memphis, Liggett seems to have been blithely unaware of his key role in the turmoil that was going on within the blindness community. All was not serious within the pages of the BFP. A column entitled Borderline Lee was very popular with the BFP's readership. Written by Floyd Qualls and Durward McDaniel, Lee in a down-home and homespun dialect would satirically -- with tongue firmly planted in cheek -- poke fun at the pomposity all too often displayed by the NFB's national leadership. For example, when Ken Jernigan announced in a speech at the NFB's 1960 national convention in Miami that because he was so busy in his job as commissioner of the Iowa Commission for the Blind, he simply did not have the time to run for or serve in a national officer position, Borderline Lee commented that Ken was so busy messing things up for blind folks in Iowa that he just couldn't do any more officering within the NFB. 

As matters were coming to a head with the formation of the American Council of the Blind (ACB) during NFB's 1961 national convention at Kansas City, the BFP era was quickly coming to a close. While one last BFP issue reporting on what had taken place at Kansas City was published at the end of 1961, it was shortly thereafter followed by the first issue of "The Braille Forum" published under the auspices of ACB. 

Hollis Liggett continued to believe fervently in underlying causes which had led to the publication of the BFP. In his quiet and unassuming manner, Liggett believed that he had been recruited to fill the BFP editor's role, and that he had performed that role to the best of his abilities. He continued to believe that in performing his assigned role, he had done nothing that rose to the height of being extraordinary, transformative, or exceptional. The passage of half a century has revealed that Hollis has greatly underestimated the value of his role as BFP editor. Because of his family obligations and the demands of his vending business, while he remained active in his local chapter, Liggett did not have the money or free time to attend state or national ACB conventions. 

After the passage of 50 years, we have the advantage of prescient hindsight, and we can clearly see the legendary role that Hollis played during those turbulent years which led to ACB's birth. While Hollis would protest that he was only doing his duty, we know that without Liggett's leadership and key role performance during trying times, the history of the blindness movement would have been far different -- and probably for the worse. Hollis Liggett's role in all of these matters was nothing other than crucial and legendary, and we in ACB salute him today for all of his contributions which directly led to the truly grassroots, representative, democratic organization of the blind which we proudly belong to today.