Kenneth Jernigan

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Norman Kenneth Jernigan (November 13, 1926 – October 12, 1998) was the longtime leader of the National Federation of the Blind, the largest and oldest blind people's organization in the United States.


Kenneth Jernigan was born totally blind in Detroit, Michigan, but grew up on a farm in the hills of Tennessee. Beginning at the age of six, he was educated at the Tennessee School for the Blind in Nashville, Tennessee. He attended Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville, Tennessee for his undergraduate work, and he went on to earn his Master's Degree in English from Peabody College in Nashville. He excelled at that institution both academically and in leadership development. Among other things, he was listed in "Who's Who" among colleges and universities, and received an award in 1949, the Captain Charles W. Brown Award, presented each year by the American Foundation for the Blind to America's most outstanding blind college student. As leader of the National Federation of the Blind, Jernigan would participate in major conflicts with the American Foundation for the Blind.

Upon his graduation from Peabody, he taught high school English at the Tennessee School for the Blind in Nashville for four years, and he became acquainted with and joined the National Federation of the Blind during that time. He moved to Oakland, California in 1953 and joined the faculty of the newly established California Orientation Center for Blind Adults. In that same year (1953), he also became fully active in the "organized blind movement" and became a noted civil rights leader in earnest for the remainder of his life.

In a 1954 Jernigan document, when he was challenging the California school system to hire qualified, blind teachers, there is early evidence of his passion for justice for the blind. Among other things, he wrote to the State Legislature of California:

"The history of mankind is the story of the triumph of reason over superstition, of knowledge over belief, of fact over prejudice, and the progress of mankind is but the result of that triumph. In every area of human endeavor, advancement has come only with the crumbling of the barriers of ignorance. It has been so with science, with religion, with industrial technology and with human relations, and it is still so today. The struggle for enlightenment and justice has been and is the great issue of the age.

Of the many superstitions and misconceptions, which have barred the way to progress, perhaps none has been more firmly entrenched or has more stubbornly resisted the light of reason than traditional concepts about blindness. According to anciently honorable custom, the blind have been considered a group apart, a helpless and hopeless lot. They have been relegated to positions of social isolation, subjected to legal discriminations and denied that most fundamental right of all free men--the right to work for their daily bread and to earn their self-respect. They have been thought of not as unemployed but as unemployable.

These are the time-honored notions, the traditional concepts, but even the most respectable of fallacies cannot withstand the truth forever. The barriers have at last begun to crumble, and the blind to emerge from their long subjugation. In the democratic tradition, they have organized themselves for united action and now, instead of charity, they have begun to demand equality--the right to work and to live as free citizens in a free society; the right to succeed or fail according to their individual abilities."

By 1956, Kenneth Jernigan had become president of a Bay Area local chapter, the Alameda Club, of the National Federation of the Blind of California. In his capacity as a local chapter president, he wrote the following to the Supreme Court of California to protest the denial of the right of a blind man to serve on a jury:

"The feeling on the part of some that the blind are incompetent to perform jury service is simply one more manifestation of the ancient stereotype which regards blindness as helplessness. That the blind are competent to perform jury service is evidenced by the fact that blind persons have in many instances actually served as jurors, and several are currently serving as judges. Could it be that a blind person is competent to be a judge and not a juror? If so, wherein lies the distinction? Surely a judge is called upon to weigh evidence as often as a juror, and his duties are as complex!"

The Iowa Experiment[edit]

In 1958, Kenneth Jernigan left California and moved to Iowa to become director of Iowa's failed rehabilitation program for the blind. This state program, the Iowa Commission for the Blind (now called the Iowa Department for the Blind]), had been determined by a 1957 Federal Rehabilitation study to be the least effective rehabilitation agency for the blind in America. Kenneth Jernigan took the Iowa Commission for the Blind directorship specifically to offer a new and revolutionary training model as to how properly to assist and empower blind people. He intended to use the "philosophy" of the National Federation of the Blind as the foundation for all state services for the blind.

After Jernigan had been in Iowa for only two weeks, he wrote a detailed letter to Governor Herschel Loveless outlining the deplorable conditions he had found in the agency upon his arrival. He listed countless critical needs of the agency, and then he finished his letter by saying: "The present director should be given a reasonable (but only a reasonable) time in which to show results. If he does not show results, he should be fired. The present director would not be willing that it should be any other way."

Kenneth Jernigan was not fired. In fact, ten years later, because of the unparalleled success of the new Jernigan training model at the Iowa Commission for the Blind, he was presented with a citation from President Lyndon Johnson for his outstanding work. Because of the remarkable success of this new Iowa model, the presenter of the Lyndon Johnson accolade, Harold Russell of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, was moved to remark, "If a person must be blind, it is better to be blind in Iowa than in any other place in the nation, or the world!"

Leadership of the National Federation of the Blind[edit]

In 1968, upon the death of the founder of the National Federation of the Blind, Jacobus tenBroek, Kenneth Jernigan became President of the organization, and remained in that position until 1986, when he decided to retire and was succeeded by Marc Maurer, who held the position until 2014. Jernigan briefly stepped down in 1977 for health reasons, but was reelected the following year. Like tenBroek before him and Maurer after him, Jernigan became known for his powerful banquet speeches, which he gave each year at the organization’s national convention even after his presidency. These speeches, which are available at the NFB website, combine references to history and literature, humorous anecdotes and serious reflections about the struggles of blind people. During Jernigan’s presidency, the NFB continued to expand and advocates for its beliefs about the need for more independence for blind people. He led the organization’s fight against the National Accreditation Council of agencies for the blind which attempted to discredit the Federation and block agency reforms.

After his presidency, Jernigan edited and contributed to over a dozen of books of stories about blind people, known as kernel books, which contain true stories about life experiences of federation members. Following Jernigan’s death, Maurer continued to edit Kernel Books, of which over 30 have now been released.

The National Center for the Blind[edit]

Kenneth Jernigan relocated from Iowa to Baltimore, Maryland in 1978 and established the National Center for the Blind, the home of the National Federation of the Blind, at 1800 Johnson Street in South Baltimore. Under his dynamic leadership, this Center became the focal point of civil rights activity not only for the blind of America, but also for the world.

Kenneth Jernigan continued his revolutionary work until his untimely death from lung cancer in 1998.

During the course of his life, Kenneth Jernigan was presented with countless honors and awards. He also received various Honorary Doctorates from American colleges and universities.

Shortly before his death, the federal Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), an agency of the United States Department of Education, honored Dr. Jernigan with its Lifetime Achievement Award. In making the presentation, RSA Commissioner Dr. Fredric K. Schroeder said:

"So, what has changed? Quite simply, nothing, and everything. Certainly not the National Federation of the Blind, No, it is not the Federation, our vehicle for collective action, that has changed; but we ourselves. We the blind are a different people; no longer on the outside looking in; no longer in abject poverty; no longer without hope or belief; no longer without a literature which defines the nuance of our understanding and belies the nonsense of the naysayers; no longer without a corps of leaders hardened on the picket lines and tempered in the trenches; no longer without the possibility of training at superior centers; no longer without the right to have our blind children be taught Braille; no longer without the material resources of superb physical plant and cutting-edge technology; no longer the passive recipients of yesterday's charity but the active architects of tomorrow's promise; and no longer without the legacy of Dr. Kenneth Jernigan and the tools he left us to finish the journey to full freedom and integration."

Upon His Death[edit]

Kenneth Jernigan served as the elected leader of the National Federation of the Blind from 1968 until 1986, but he continued as the political leader of the organization until near the time of his death in 1998. His tombstone in Baltimore bears the following legend offered in loving memory by the blind community: “He taught us it is respectable to be blind!”

(For additional information about Dr. Kenneth Jernigan in general, or for specific details about The Iowa Experiment, see THE BLINDNESS REVOLUTION: Jernigan in His Own Words, by James H. Omvig, Information Age Publishing, Inc., 2005.)

Additionally, much information about him is available throughout the literature on the NFB website, which includes his banquet speeches and other writing.

He was married to Mary Ellen Jernigan, who is still active in the NFB, particularly in planning the national conventions.

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