More than 200 mourners remember activist for the blind with march NFB leader Jernigan 'gave us all tools to live,' his successor says

October 16, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

As some sang "Amazing Grace," more than 200 blind and sighted people marched one more time yesterday for Kenneth Jernigan, their fallen national leader who had led them on many angry protest marches.

The march followed a Mass of the Resurrection at St. Joseph's Monastery Roman Catholic Church in Irvington for Jernigan, the blind former president of the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind (NFB) who died here Monday of lung cancer at 71.

Mourners from around the country and Canada heard his blind successor, Marc Maurer, eulogize him as "the man who gave us all the tools to live."

"Because of him, I learned to cut down trees with a crosscut saw, grill hamburgers on the barbecue and communicate with Braille. It was that way for all of us. We came to him without hope and we left with confidence."

After the service, many of those present embraced Mary Ellen Osborn Jernigan's idea to honor her husband in one more march, this time in peace and contentment.

With white canes and guide dogs, they strode out of church, crossed Frederick Road and walked nearly a mile to the gravesite service in Loudon Park Cemetery, five abreast behind the hearse, the American flag and the gold standard of the National Federation of the Blind.

Coincidentally, yesterday was White Cane Safety Day, observed each Oct. 15 since it was proclaimed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 at the NFB's urging. The day promotes safety for the blind while symbolizing their need for an independent life free of pity.

"Pity is the worst form of prejudice against blind people," Jernigan, who was blind since birth, liked to say.

Several remembered walking in anger many times with Jernigan, notably with hundreds of others on July 6, 1973, down Madison Avenue in New York, where he said:

"Finally we came marching -- marching to take part, marching to be heard, marching to be free, marching to be treated like human beings."

One veteran blind protester was Barbara B. Pierce of Oberlin, Ohio, associated with the NFB since organizing a chapter in 1974. She marched with Jernigan in Minneapolis in 1980. "It did not come easily to us to march, but Dr. Jernigan said there comes a time there's no other way to vote than with feet. It worked."

Another seasoned protester was Betsy Zaborowski, NFB programs director, who is blind. She said many of the marchers and other NFB members consider Jernigan their Martin Luther King Jr. for having so aggressively fought for civil rights for the blind and for others.

Mary Jernigan, a sighted person, often marched with Kenneth Jernigan before and after they were married 14 years ago. "He would have loved the march," she said.

"We marched in the old days because agencies for the blind and many others were so backward. They didn't understand blind people wanted the same opportunities as others. The marches brought us action. They brought us peace."

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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