Reflecting on Dr. King and the Disability Rights Movement

Dr. Martin Luther King and the connections between the Civil Rights Movement and the Disability Rights Movement. Read more!In thinking about Dr. Martin Luther King as his birthday approaches, I was looking into connections between the civil rights movement that he helped to lead for racial equality and the disability rights movement. I’ve always been interested in the intersection of groups of people who are discriminated against, and bringing white clergy, public officials and citizens into the movement opposing discrimination against blacks was an essential part of King’s strategy.

I’ve also been thinking about how King might have responded to current attacks on the poor, on people with disabilities, and on important government programs that the majority of Americans depend on for healthcare and a modicum of economic security – programs that include Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.

What has always interested me most about King is the organizing focused on economic justice that he did toward the end of his life – work I have always believed prompted his murder. Having turned his formidable skills and national stature to organizing across racial lines for economic equality through the Poor People’s Campaign, it is easy to imagine this leading to King being considered a greater threat than any of his prior campaigns. This is especially compelling when looked at through the lens of policies that have sharply increased economic inequality since his death.

King was a master strategist – as skilled as any military, political or social leader, and far more effective than most, one who deliberatively organized across class, race, religious and gender boundaries. He understood that all oppressed people, and all people of conscience, have far more in common than what divides us. It could be argued that therein lies his most important legacy.

I recently found an account written by Kitty Cone, a lifelong disability rights activist and organizer until her death in 2015, of a seminal battle over the first federal law establishing people with disabilities as a class for the purposes of anti-discrimination protections. I’ve read many inspiring stories of activism, but Cone’s account stands out not only for its emotional punch, but for its detailed description of how to conduct an effective civil rights campaign.

This was a national campaign by people with disabilities that took place in 1977. Their goal was to force the federal government to implement section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act, which had been passed by Congress four years earlier, in 1973.

Section 504, which preceded and laid the ground for the Americans with Disabilities Act, prohibited disability-based discrimination by any entity – such as a school, medical facility, transit system or public building – that benefited from federal funds. While the law had been passed by Congress and signed by President Richard Nixon, it had yet to take effect as Nixon and his two successors, President Gerard Ford and President Jimmy Carter, resisted taking the actions necessary to implement section 504: having the Department of Health and Human Services (HEW) issue clear regulations and creating an enforcement mechanism.

Meanwhile, over the four years during which section 504 was on the books but not yet implemented, healthcare providers, schools, and state and county governments lobbied against it, and courts issued conflicting and confusing rulings about what it actually required. As Cone wrote, “There was one case involving the right of a wheelchair user to use public buses in which the [court ruled] that if a driver stopped and opened the doors that constituted nondiscrimination,” even though there was no way for the wheelchair user to get onto the bus!

Clearly, for the law to mean anything, regulations were needed to “provide a consistent, coherent interpretation of 504’s legal intent.” To press the issue, the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) was formed. Our beloved and recently deceased colleague Anna Fay was a founding member.

As part of a string of delay tactics, HEW had set up a task force to study proposed regulations to implement section 504; not a single task force member was a person with a disability. Soon, leaks from the task force revealed that it would recommend regulations that defied both the plain meaning and the intent of section 504. For example, rather than requiring colleges to be accessible, the task force came up with the idea of letting all of the colleges in a geographic area provide a few accessible classes so that someone with a disability could obtain a full course of study by travelling from college to college!

ACCD decided, rather than wait for “watered-down regulations [to be] issued and then respond, to seize control of the situation” – a brilliant strategic turning point for their movement. The coalition issued an April 4 deadline for HEW to release the regulations, calling for sit-ins the next day at eight HEW headquarters across the nation if the agency did not comply.

HEW ignored ACCD’s deadline and the sit-ins commenced all over the country. In San Francisco, where Kitty Cone was an organizer, a broad cross-disability group assembled to rally and then sit-in at HEW’s office – an action that continued for 28 days with more than 200 people with disabilities rotating through.

The group “set up committees to take on different tasks such as rally speakers, media, fund-raising, medics, monitors, publicity and outreach. At every moment,” Cone wrote, “we felt ourselves the descendants of the civil rights movement of the ‘60s. We learned about sit-ins from the civil rights movement, we sang freedom songs to keep up morale, and [to] consciously show the connection between the two movements. We always drew the parallels. [Talking] about public transportation we said ‘we can’t even get on the back of the bus.’ A high point [of the sit in] was [civil rights leader] Julian Bond’s visit to the building.”

Four days into the sit-ins, on April 8, the Black Panthers issued a statement in solidarity with the ACCD, calling on President Jimmy Carter and HEW Secretary Joseph Califano to implement section 504.

“The issue here,” the Panthers noted, “is human rights – rights of meaningful employment, of education, of basic human survival of an oppressed minority, the disabled and handicapped.” They also supported the ACCD’s action by bringing the protestors meals.

In addition to Kitty Cone’s first-hand account, I learned much of this history from a wonderful digital exhibit put together by the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), where I also found the photo accompanying this post. You can also see artifacts, including signs drawn by Cone, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and on its website, here.

AAPD’s exhibit is rich in historical artifacts and well worth spending some time exploring. It also makes the exact point that I was thinking of when I began my research for this post. Cross-movement activism is perhaps the most powerful tool we have to advance democracy in the United States. While Dr. King did not invent this tool, through his singular leadership and lasting achievements he bequeathed it to the entire nation so that we could take it up.

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