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  • Hannah Herron

Helen Keller, a Radical Activist

When one hears the name Helen Keller, an image that can immediately come to mind is of a little girl at a water pump, as immortalized at the US Capitol. The girl’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, shows her how to sign for water and explains that everything has a name and symbol. Oftentimes this is where her story ends; her life degraded into a brief summary of how Helen went from a disruptive and troubled youth to a “normal child" who grew up and met famous people like Mark Twain and Alexander Graham Bell. We were not taught to view Helen as an actual person but rather a legendary character whose story ended at childhood. What we are not taught about in school is of her radical activism, political affiliation, and how she championed for all people regardless of color, gender, or abilities.

 
"I am not a perfect being. . . . I have more faults than I know what to do with. I have a naughty temper. I am stubborn, impatient of hindrances and of stupidity. I have not in the truest sense a Christian spirit. I am naturally a fighter. I am lazy. I put off till tomorrow what I might better do today. I do not feel that I have been compensated for the two senses I lack. I have worked hard for all the senses I have got, and always I beg for more." - Helen Keller

"A Message from the Hand, or from Darkness to Light (Another Beginning)," draft of speech, 1928

 

After Helen achieved the means to communicate in the world with the help of Anne Sullivan, her inquisitive nature took off and she hungrily pursued a passion for equality, social justice, and workers rights. She truly had a brilliant mind that constantly kept her searching for truth and justice. Her thirst for truth led her to attend Radcliffe College (present day Harvard University) as the first deaf and blind student with the help of Anne Sullivan who transcribed all of her lessons. She rose to the top of her class and graduated in 1904 as cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts. She became a highly successful published author, and toured the world with Anne and their secretary Polly Thomson, and gave speeches about overcoming obstacles, the dangers of capitalism, and the fight for equality.


Helen’s passion for justice naturally led her to support the Women's Suffrage Movement. She attended and was to speak at the infamous 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, DC where more than 5,000 women marched to advocate for their right to vote. Helen's experience, like many women that day, was not kind. During the procession, a mob of men encroached the streets and made it nearly impossible for the marchers to continue on their route. Women were jeered, tripped, grabbed, and shoved, and as many as 300 marchers were hurt and taken to the hospital. Helen was so exhausted from the harassing onlookers who blocked her from reaching the grandstands that she was unable to make her speech at Continental Hall.* That terrible experience did not stop her though. Helen, a self proclaimed militant suffragist, continued to speak on behalf of women, and advocate for women's suffrage and access to birth control.*

"We have prayed, we have coaxed, we have begged, for the vote, with the hope that men, out of chivalry, would bestow equal rights upon women and take them into partnership in the affairs of the state.” - Helen Keller

Not only did Helen contest for women's rights, but also for workers rights. Helen joined the American Socialist Party (SP) in 1908, and believed that capitalism fueled the division between people with disabilities and the rest of the population. Helen fought against the unsafe working conditions in factories and stated that workplace injuries and sickness bred out of the belief of profit over people, were a main cause of disabilities. "She found that other social factors contributed, too, such as the prevalence of poverty, unequal access to medicine, overcrowded and unsanitary slums, and an officially imposed societal ignorance regarding matters of reproductive and sexual health."* Helen regularly wrote articles for the Socialist Party press, went on lecture tours across the United States, and supported and popularized all the major strikes and industrial battles of the day. After the tragic Ludlow Massacre of 1914, where striking miners and their families were brutally killed in Colorado, Helen spoke out against American financier, John D. Rockefeller, and referred to him as, “a monster of capitalism.”


“I am a Socialist because only under socialism can everyone obtain the right to work and be happy.” – Helen Keller, in black hat, supporting actors’ strike, 1919.
Helen Keller, in black hat, supporting actors’ strike, 1919.

The welfare of each is bound up in the welfare of all.” - Helen Keller

A pacifist to the core Helen was against World War I and she believed the war was created to serve and fuel industries, “workers suffer all the miseries, while rulers reap the rewards.” She was also horrified by the use of chemical warfare and how many soldiers became blind as a result. She joined forces with George Kessler to create the Permanent Blind Relief War Fund for Soldiers & Sailors of the Allies (now Helen Keller International) in 1915, an incorporated in 1919. The fund opened many schools in Europe to help teach soldiers how to read braille and thrive post service. During the 1920's the organization began began printing texts in Braille prompting a name change in 1925 to the American Braille Press for War and Civilian Blind. Under this name the organization was one of the leading publishers of Braille texts, and created the first “talking book” in 1937.


Helen was a leader in the American Federation for the Blind and spent over 40 years working to improve the lives of people with disabilities, and give a voice to those without. "The chief handicap of the blind is not blindness, but the attitude of seeing people towards them." She championed for the improvement and equal treatment for people living with disabilities. "A person who is severely impaired never knows his hidden sources of strength until he is treated like a normal human being and encouraged to shape his own life." Her work with the AFB helped improve the lives of countless people, and they still continue this mission today.


In addition to being an advocate for people with disabilities Helen was also an early supporter of the civil rights movement, and was one of the founding members of the ACLU. A remarkable act considering her father, Arthur Keller, was a confederate veteran who had owned enslaved African Americans in Alabama. The lynching of African Americans at an alarming rate pushed her to speak out against racism and the mistreatment of African Americans. She supported and wrote articles for the NAACP:

"Nay, let me say it, this great republic of ours is a mockery when citizens in any section are denied the rights which the Constitution guarantees them, when they are openly evicted, terrorized and lynched by prejudiced mobs, and their persecutors and murderers are allowed to walk abroad unpunished." - Letter to the NAACP endorsing their work and decrying the social climate of the United States, February 13, 1916

Because of her outspoken activism and political affiliation, Helen Keller was taken very seriously by the United States Government. By the time she passed away at the age of 87, in 1968, she had been under FBI surveillance, most of her adult life.*


Helen Keller was much more than a frustrated child by a water pump. She was an outspoken Socialist, a militant suffragist, a radical labor and disability rights advocate, and a civil rights activist. She believed in equality and opportunity for all which is a battle we still as a country fight for today. Don’t think of Helen Keller as a “fixed” child, think of Helen as a warrior for change. Facing her own adversity she dedicated her life to enacting change and pushing for equality for all.

"I do not like the world as it is; so I am trying to make it a little more as I want it."
 

Further learning:

  • Explore the Helen Keller Archive here


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