Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Helen Keller: Freedom Fighter

Statue of Helen Keller in Washington, DC

From the Jacksonville Times Union "South Wire: The forgotten Helen Keller: Socialist, anti-war, founder of ACLU," by the Associated Press, on 16 May 2005  --  TUSCUMBIA, Ala. - It's impossible to miss the ubiquitous brown signs for Ivy Green, birthplace of Helen Keller. She's the pride of this northern Alabama town. People here celebrate her with an annual festival and performances of "The Miracle Worker" play, and her childhood home is preserved like a shrine.

Visitors learn that her father was a captain in the Confederacy. They see the water pump where the blind and deaf child made the connection that things have names, with teacher Anne Sullivan spelling w-a-t-e-r into her hand. Photos of the adult Helen with U.S. presidents hang in a museum.

Confederate J.L.M. Curry

Not on display are Keller's membership in the Socialist Party, her letters praising the work of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, her anti-war essays or much about her as a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Alabama's favorite daughter was left of center, to say the least. Very different from the political conservatism so dominant in her home state.

But her politics didn't keep Keller off the state quarter. And her statue will soon appear in the U.S. Capitol, replacing educator, congressman and Confederate Gen. Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry as one of Alabama's two entries in the National Statuary Hall. Supporters say that's because Keller is universally beloved for her courage over adversity, her championing of the underdog, her indomitable brilliance.

Some historians have a slightly different take. They agree she was one of the country's most remarkable women, but say Alabama history tends to freeze her at age 7 or gloss over her adulthood complexities. Most people have no clue she was a leftist.

"What we do is we sanitize people to make them heroes or heroines... And, frankly, I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Society needs more heroes and heroines," said Auburn University history Professor Wayne Flynt, who described Keller as a "crusading socialist" in his latest tome, "Alabama in the 20th Century."

"She was very politically liberal for her time, and that's what makes her controversial in Alabama today," Flynt said. "Does Alabama really want an extremely liberal woman who was a suffragist, who was a pacifist and didn't want to go to war, who attacked big business for child labor?"

The state Legislature has approved the Keller statue, as did a congressional committee. With Alabama first lady Patsy Riley promoting it and raising funds, the project is moving swiftly and with little opposition.

The idea to replace Curry with Keller started at the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind. Then-President Joe Busta helped push through supporting legislation three years ago.

The plan for the statue is to display the 7-year-old Helen at the backyard water pump.

"It's the image that's best known throughout the state, the country and the world. That singular moment at the pump where she makes the connection to language," said Busta, now vice president of development and alumni relations at the University of South Alabama.

Keller will be one of the few women displayed at the Capitol and the first person ever with disabilities.

"That's heavy stuff," Busta said. "She not only represents us well, but she represents all in our state and country and world with disabilities."

Some of Keller's relatives still live in Alabama. Great-nephew William Johnson Jr., a Tuscumbia lawyer, remembers visits with his grandmother's famous sister. But conversation was not political. He was 25 when she died in 1968, so he did not know her during her most active days. But he believes her socialism faded as she aged and as times changed.

"Her early radical political views came about in the earlier 1900s to 1925. I don't know whether it was a phase. In any event, she apparently didn't pursue it in her more mature years. Everybody gets to be a radical when they're young," Johnson said.

It would be fair to view that side of her as "almost a historical relic," he said.

But not one of the relics chosen for display at Ivy Green. An adult Helen is pictured reading a Braille Bible. A white-haired Helen is framed with her favorite scripture, the 23rd Psalm.

Ivy Green Director Sue Pilkilton said few visitors seem interested in Keller's politics, and besides, she said, Ivy Green's role is to preserve her birthplace and the water pump, where the "miracle" happened.

But Pilkilton has her own beliefs. She sees Keller as a Christian socialist, looking out for the less fortunate. If her views ever strayed into the extreme, it was likely because she was influenced by radicals around her.

"We've got to remember, Helen, being deaf and blind, someone always had to be the one talking with her, telling her views, telling her feelings." Pilkilton said. "She could read only what people gave her. ... There wasn't much for the blind in that time."

Suggestions that she was a puppet or a plagiarist dogged Keller while she was living. But her writings describe a voracious reader of American and German books, and newspapers from all over the world. Keller often disagreed politically with her teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy, who stayed with her as an adult, among the companions who finger-spelled books to her.

Macy's husband was a socialist, and Keller's doubters believed he influenced her. She responded to her critics in the 1912 essay, "How I Became a Socialist."

"Mr. Macy may be an enthusiastic Marxist propagandist, though I am sorry to say he has not shown much enthusiasm for propagating his Marxism through my fingers," she wrote. "Mrs. Macy is not a Marxist or a socialist."

Keller joined the Socialist Party in 1909.

"There's no arguing that," said Victoria Ott, an assistant professor of history at Birmingham-Southern College who specializes in Southern women.

Ott ticks off the progressive movements of the early 1900s with which Keller was associated: the women's suffrage movement, the birth control campaign, the NAACP. Some of Keller's harshest words were against war and the businesses that benefited from it.

"In spite of the historical proof of the futility of war, the United States is preparing to raise a billion dollars and a million soldiers in preparation for war," she wrote when the United States entered World War I. "Behind the active agitators for defense you will find J.P. Morgan & Co., and the capitalists who have invested their money in shrapnel plants, and others that turn out implements of murder."

The American Civil Liberties Union grew out of groups that had defended the rights of conscientious objectors during World War I, and in 1920 Keller was one of the founding members.

Keller further blamed greedy industrialists for allowing dangerous work conditions that caused blindness and perpetuated poverty.

"Why is it that so many workers live in unspeakable misery? With their hands they have built great cities, and they cannot be sure of a roof over their head. They have gone into the bowels of the earth for diamonds and gold, and they haggle for a loaf of bread. They plow and sow and fill our hands with flowers while their own hands are filled with dust," she once said, according to a collection of quotes assembled by the Birmingham-based Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education.

More than once, she said that without her family's relative prosperity, she would never have had the privilege of schools and teachers, unavailable to the impoverished masses.

After World War II, Keller was best known for visiting veterans who had lost their sight in the war. Some argue that her focus on veterans changed her pacifist views, signaling the end of her left-wing phase.

"I don't consider it a phase," Ott said. "I consider that she's maturing as an activist and going into different areas."

Left-leaning movements, the ACLU, advocates for the blind and disabled, feminists and, of course, Alabama, all try to claim Keller. In the upshot, it can seem as though interest groups have appropriated Keller to be what they want her to be. Or maybe, because she was so accomplished and dynamic with a range of passions, she was all those things.

"Part of what's going on here, she lived 88 years and the political context of the United States in the 19-teens is very different from the political context of the U.S. in the 1950s," said Kim Nielsen, a history professor at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, author of "The Radical Lives of Helen Keller."

Post World War II, "everyone was expressing their political views differently," Nielsen said.

The Roosevelt administration ushered in an era of social welfare programs, labor protections and increased public education, Nielsen pointed out. Of note, one of the most famous quotes concerning Keller came from FDR, "If Helen Keller's for it, I'm for it." In her day, Keller recognized that many people disagreed with her.

"She read people she agreed and didn't agree with, people who changed her mind, She loved to have people around her who argued with her because she enjoyed it," Nielsen said. "What was really frustrating to her was when people did not take her seriously in her politics because of her disability."

Historians and people at the American Foundation for the Blind say there seems to be a renewed interest in Keller. New books are out, and now Alabama is honoring her with the quarter and the statue. Still, there remains a lot of ignorance about who she was and what she cared about.

"We do not know the fullness of her life," said Martha Bouyer, supervisor of secondary social studies for Jefferson County Schools.

She flipped through a fourth-grade text, which said little beyond the childhood miracle and Keller's work for the deaf and blind.

"You know how people want to clean up history, sanitize it and strip away things that others might find offensive?" Bouyer asked. "But the total person made Helen Keller and made people want to honor her all over the world, and to pull away any of that would be a disservice to her."  [source: Jacksonville Times Union; Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.]


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