Friday’s Labor Folklore: Helen Keller — Labor’s Unsung Hero

 

“The true task is to unite and organize all workers on an economic basis, and it is the workers themselves who must secure freedom for themselves, who must grow strong.”

Helen Keller (1880-1968) is perhaps the most recognized symbol of the disability community – a powerful representative of a person overcoming almost insurmountable obstacles. Yet the now-mythic story of Keller as a deaf-blind child learning to communicate with her teacher has overshadowed the complex story of the mature advocate, activist, lecturer and author who honed her intellect and leveraged her celebrity to side with the disadvantaged the world over – especially in defense of the American working classes.

Born in Alabama to a wealthy family, she lost her sight and hearing as an infant as a result of illness.

In 1903, at the age of 22, she published the first installment of her autobiography “The Story of My Life,” which became a bestseller and brought her worldwide fame.

In 1908 Keller joined the American Socialist Party (SP) and the Women’s Suffrage movement.

In 1912, she joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), noting in her lectures that that many forms of blindness prevalent in the U.S. were traceable to industrial working conditions.

Journalists, interviewers and editors frequently redacted, edited or outright censored her comments to fit the sensibilities of the times. Keller herself noted the contradiction in the way her life and ideas were treated – how the iconic story of the disabled child cast a long shadow over her own mature ideas and activism. In the second installment of her autobiography in 1929, she reflected:

“So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly . . . but when it comes to discussion of a burning social or political issue, especially if I happen to be, as I so often am, on the unpopular side, the tone changes completely. They are grieved because they imagine I am in the hands of unscrupulous persons who take advantage of my afflictions to make me a mouthpiece for their own ideas . . . I like frank debate, and I do not object to harsh criticism so long as I am treated like a human being with a mind of her own.”

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