Monday, October 1, 2012

Helen Keller Social Activist

Helen Keller was born on June 22, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama with both sight and hearing. At 19 months, she contracted a disease that although short lived, left her deaf and blind. The story of her astonishing achievements against what seemed impossible odds inspired movies, newspaper and magazine articles, and books. Many focused on the years with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, which is why she is often remembered as an author and lecturer who worked tirelessly for the blind and deaf around the world. It may also be why she is less known for her active role in labor movements, woman suffrage, socialism, and pacifism.

Her passionate and sometimes vocal involvement annoyed people who believed a person with disabilities (and women) should remain silent. Southern relatives disapproved of her support of the NAACP and her involvement in the establishment of the ACLU. The Nazis burned her books, and her writings and activities interested the United States government enough to earn her a file with the FBI. As she became more vocal, her fame came under attack. Some even claimed her political leanings were because of her disabilities. I suppose that could hold a grain of truth. It was because of her disabilities that she began working for others like her, and became aware of the disproportionate numbers of disabled in lower income brackets.  

It was not criticism of her beliefs that prompted her to soften her Socialist rhetoric, but rather an overwhelming desire to further the work of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). She was afraid her own political views would take away support from the organization. That did not stop her from working for her causes. She continued less visibly, but with equal passion.

The aim of all government should be to secure to the workers as large a share as possible of the fruits of their toil. For is it not labor that creates all things? 1924 letter to Senator Robert M. La Follette from Helen Keller.

When Helen graduated from Radcliffe in 1904, she had already published her autobiography The Story of My Life, 1902, and Optimism an Essay, 1903. 

"The highest result of education is tolerance. Long ago men fought and died for their faith; but it took ages to teach them the other kind of courage—the courage to recognize the faiths of their brethren and their rights of conscience. Tolerance is the first principle of community; it is the spirit which conserves the best that all men think. No loss by flood and lightning, no destruction of cities and temples by the hostile forces of nature, has deprived man of so many noble lives and impulses as those which his intolerance has destroyed." Helen Keller, Optimism An Essay

On Woman Suffrage

From the essay, Why Men Need Woman Suffrage, 1913
"Anyone that reads intelligently knows that some of our old ideas are up a tree, and that traditions are scurrying away before the advance of their everlasting enemy, the questioning mind of a new age. It is time to take a good look at human affairs in the light of new conditions and new ideas, and the tradition that man is the natural master of the destiny of the race is one of the first to suffer investigation.

The dullest can see that a good many things are wrong with the world. It is old-fashioned, running into ruts. We lack intelligent direction and control. We are not getting the most out of our opportunities and advantages. We must make over the scheme of life, and new tools are needed for the work. Perhaps one of the chief reasons for the present chaotic condition of things is that the world has been trying to get along with only half of itself." See the entire essay,

On Workers Rights
A letter and donation to the striking Little Falls, NY textile workers

The Tacoma Times, November 13, 1912
"I am sending the check which Mr. Davis paid me for the Christmas sentiments I sent him. Will you give it to the brave girls who are striving so courageously to bring about the emancipation of the workers at Little Falls? They have my warmest sympathy. Their cause is my cause. If they are denied a living wage, I also am denied. While they are industrial slaves, I cannot be free. My hunger is not satisfied while they are unfed. I cannot enjoy the good things of life which come to me, if they are hindered and neglected, I want all the workers of the world to have sufficient money to provide the elements of a normal standard of living—a decent home, healthful surroundings, opportunity for education and recreation. I want them all to have the same blessings that I have. I, deaf and blind, have been helped to overcome many obstacles. I want them to be helped as generously in a struggle which resembles my own in many ways."

On Society
From an article in the Socialist newsletter Justice. October 1913
"The structure of a society built upon such wrong basic principles is bound to retard the development of all men, even the most successful ones because it tends to divert man's energies into useless channels and to degrade his character. The result is a false standard of values. Trade and material prosperity are held to be the main objects of pursuit and conquest, the lowest instincts in human nature—love of gain, cunning and selfishness—are fostered."

I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do. Helen Keller
In 1932, Helen Keller had the opportunity to visit the top of the Empire State building, after which she received a letter from Dr. John Finley, inquiring about her experience.
Frankly, I was so entranced "seeing" that I did not think about the sight. If there was a subconscious thought of it, it was in the nature of gratitude to God for having given the blind seeing minds. As I now recall the view I had from the Empire Tower, I am convinced that, until we have looked into darkness, we cannot know what a divine thing vision is.
Perhaps I beheld a brighter prospect than my companions with two good eyes. Anyway, a blind friend gave me the best description I had of the Empire Building until I saw it myself.
But what of the Empire Building? It was a thrilling experience to be whizzed in a "lift" a quarter of a mile heavenward, and to see New York spread out like a marvellous tapestry beneath us.

There was the Hudson – more like the flash of a sword-blade than a noble river. The little island of Manhattan, set like a jewel in its nest of rainbow waters, stared up into my face, and the solar system circled about my head! Why, I thought, the sun and the stars are suburbs of New York, and I never knew it! I had a sort of wild desire to invest in a bit of real estate on one of the planets. All sense of depression and hard times vanished, I felt like being frivolous with the stars. But that was only for a moment. I am too static to feel quite natural in a Star View cottage on the Milky Way, which must be something of a merry-go-round even on quiet days.
See the entire letter.
Her vision is even more astonishing when you remember it came without sight and hearing. She taught that we are all one. That each of us has something to offer. How many of us "see" with that clarity?

No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit. Helen Keller Optimism an Essay

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