President's Message: ACB's Past: Prelude to Our Future

by Mitch Pomerantz

We are fast approaching both the 235th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which signaled the founding of the United States of America, and the 50th anniversary of the meeting which launched the American Council of the Blind. While some members may believe that too much time and energy is spent recalling ACB's history, I'm going to risk criticism and devote much of this column to a recap of that history, at least the part which led to the establishment of ACB in 1961. In view of the fact that we will be celebrating our anniversary in several ways during next month's conference and convention, those of you who aren't into history will please bear with me. The next several paragraphs were excerpted from speeches I've given over the past three years at two affiliate conventions and at the Western Regional Leadership Conference.

It is no exaggeration to say that the founding of both the entity which ultimately became the United States of America in 1776 and the American Council of the Blind in 1961, occurred as the direct result of the actions of tyrants. We all learned in school about King George III of England, taxation without representation, "The Boston Tea Party," and so on. America's corporate culture -- to use a popular catch-phrase -- has developed out of an abiding belief in individual freedom and personal responsibility, to name just two widely held American values.

In much the same way, the American Council of the Blind was established and shaped in reaction to the tyrannical rule of Jacobus tenBroek, Kenneth Jernigan, and the other leaders of the National Federation of the Blind during the 1950s. These individuals believed that a strong, centralized organization led by an all-powerful president was necessary to the goals of the Federation. Because of this, we in ACB hold certain core values near and dear to our hearts. We uphold the ideals of autonomous state and special-interest affiliates; individual freedom of thought and action; and policies and decisions made by the rank-and-file membership and carried out by our leaders.

We know this thanks to the efforts of James J. and Marjorie L. Megivern, who wrote "People of Vision: A History of the American Council of the Blind" (available through the ACB national office). This book chronicles in considerable detail ACB's first 40 years, as well as why it became necessary for leaders such as Durward McDaniel, George Card, Marie Boring and Floyd Qualls to break away from the NFB, just as the leaders of the original 13 colonies found it necessary to break away from Mother England.

Events such as the unilateral firing of the Federation's executive director by tenBroek and subsequent passage by NFB's executive committee of a resolution which was ultimately expanded into the so-called Card Amendment (adopted at the 1958 NFB convention in Boston), marked a turning point in NFB's history and a significant deviation from established tenets of democratic rule. Six affiliates who challenged the leadership were suspended in 1960 at the NFB convention in Miami.

The stage was set for ACB's declaration of independence at the 1961 NFB convention in Kansas City, Mo. The defeat of a motion to reinstate those previously suspended affiliates and adoption of seven "Conditions of Reinstatement of Suspended Affiliates," led 83 individuals representing 21 states and the District of Columbia to attend the first organizing session of the American Council of the Blind on Thursday afternoon, July 6th. According to the Megiverns, 26 people are listed as charter members of ACB. The rest, as they say, is history -- our history!

Based on the foregoing, it is wholly understandable why this organization functions as it does and why we, the members of ACB, believe as we do. Since attending my first ACB convention in 1984, I have been struck by the membership's steadfast adherence to those core values I mentioned previously: affiliate autonomy, individual freedom of choice, and grass-roots decision-making.

At our forthcoming 50th anniversary celebration, we will take time to honor our past by hearing from members who were either there at the beginning, or had close ties to those who were. Sadly, there are precious few of those charter members still with us and most of those remaining will be unable to attend. Nonetheless, we will get some sense of those tumultuous times and early years of the organization from a panel presentation on Monday morning.

Additionally, the five living ACB presidents who preceded me will offer, by recording, their comments during the five weekday sessions. And on Friday evening during the banquet, four attendees (to be selected at the conference and convention) will compete after dinner in "ACB Jeopardy," an educational and entertaining look at our past.

The future direction of the American Council of the Blind will be determined by our current members and by those members who will join ACB in the years and decades to come. This direction will be memorialized in the election of officers and board members, and the passage of policy resolutions and amendments to our constitution and bylaws. The organization will change over time; it will have to in order to meet the needs and concerns of blind and visually impaired people in the years to come. But none of this would be possible if not for those 59 forward-looking men and women who believed that an organization of the blind could and should be based upon those principles which are at the heart of this great nation. I believe this fact alone justifies some attention to our history.