Black, deaf communities share “collective identity” that has spurred change
February 26, 2013
Author: Megan Clancy
Civil rights activist Julian Bond drew parallels between African Americans and the deaf community in their respective struggles for equality in his February 21, 2013 campus lecture, "From Civil Rights to Human Rights." Bond's visit was one of the events held in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Deaf President Now (DPN) movement.
Bond is well known for his political activism-he held seats for four terms in the Georgia House of Representatives and six terms in the state's senate-and as a social leader, serving as the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center and past chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In addition, he was a cofounder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960, which proved to be very influential in advancing civil rights. He is currently distinguished adjunct professor in the Department of Government at American University.
In his address to the Gallaudet audience, Bond, the grandson of a man who was enslaved prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, explored the term "collective identity," which comes from people interacting with one another as a group, sharing common historical experiences.
The common experiences of deaf people and DPN led to a sense of collective identity," Bond said. Black people in higher education experienced a similar situation, he said. Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, chartered in 1854 and the oldest college for black men in the U.S., did not get its first black president, Dr. Horace Mann Bond, until 1945. That man was Bond's father.
Bond gained personal knowledge of the struggle for equality by the disability community when he joined the protest to implement Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, requiring any business or organization receiving federal funding--hospitals and universities, for example--to provide access to people with disabilities. After people with disabilities waited in vain for almost three years for the law to be enacted, the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities launched a nationwide protest, and Section 504 finally became law in 1977. "It (Section 504) was the first civil rights law guaranteeing equal opportunity for people with disabilities," Bond said. "Without Section 504 there might well be no Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that finally put disabilities on a par with gender and race in the pantheon of federal civil rights laws."
"DPN did not erupt out of nowhere," Bond said. "For more than a century deaf people had been engaged in improving their status in America. Fights over preserving American Sign Language (ASL), building schools, and creating organizations occurred in a world most hearing Americans did not even know existed."
Civil rights movements begin with a major event that spurs widespread support and culminates with some form of protest, Bond explained. For example, Rosa Parks incited the Montgomery Bus Boycott after she was arrested for refusing to sit in the black section on a city bus; while the resignation of Gallaudet's 7th president, Jerry Lee, in 1987, lead to popular opinion in the deaf community that the time had come for leadership by a deaf president, only to have that opinion overlooked in favor of the status quo. "And just as Montgomery had the immediate result of desegregating the bus system, so did DPN immediately result in a deaf president for this university," Bond said.
At the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the quality of life for black people in America was deplorable, he said. Black people had the lowest paid jobs, were prohibited from voting, and lived in sub-par housing. It took a galvanizing event such as Parks' arrest for the black community's dissatisfaction with these conditions to boil over and led to protests, including the bus boycott. As a result, "Black churches, colleges, and businesses thrived in the segregated city; black social and civic organizations and institutions grew as well," Bond said.
Bond then brought up the question: What makes a civil rights movement successful? He named four conditions: a group of social organizations with experienced leaders, supporters, communication networks, and workers; the ability to collect resources; and a workable strategy with a plan, tactics, and an approach to confront the "enemy." "The various elements of DPN--students, faculty, staff, and alumni did everything a successful movement must do," Bond said. "Just like the participants in the Montgomery Bus Boycott three decades earlier, they had a strategy."
Additionally, Bond said the DPN movement was felt outside of Gallaudet. For example, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf had its own protests, and schools for deaf students in a number of states faced with the threat of closure have held protests to keep their schools open, Bond said. "The impact of DPN on the deaf community has been revolutionary indeed," Bond said. And just as the Montgomery Bus Boycott advanced opportunity for people of color elsewhere, so was the impact of DPN felt elsewhere too."
Bond strongly encouraged Gallaudet to not to give up to make the world a better place for the deaf community. "What you have to do is just to work on it and work on it and work on it. It is hard," Bond said. "We have gone from civil rights to human rights, and we are all better off as a result."