by Adrianne Hutto, Asst. Production Editor
The blind Civil Rights and Disability Rights activist Ever Lee Hairston hosted the “Finding Your Voice Event” on Feb. 11 and spoke to students all over the country, Jaspers included. As Black History Month draws to a close and Women’s History month begins, the event left an educational and insightful impact.
Hairston gave a powerful recount of her journey, from growing up in the segregated South to her adulthood, where she struggled with her sight and eventually gave up her dream of being a nurse. Despite all the struggles she’s faced, Hairston was determined to “find her voice” and strive to live a happy life among the challenges.
“Find your voice, but it’s finding my voice tonight,” Hairston said. “Being your authentic self and finding opportunities. From the slave fields to the Hollywood Hills of California. We don’t have the power to make life famous, but we do have the power to make life joyful. I learned that life was tough. But apparently, I am tougher and resilient.”
Hairston recounted her experience living on a plantation. She explained that her siblings and her would be forced to miss school to pick and chop cotton. She explains how one fall day, her father dropped her siblings and her off at the cotton fields before he left for work. After picking twenty or so yards, she looked down and saw a snake. Despite her fear, Hairston was encouraged by her brother to continue.
“When he returned for us, I’m sure he was going to be disappointed because we had not picked very much cotton,” Hairston said. “But I began to cry and I placed my head in my hands and I prayed ‘oh God there must be a better way for life for me.”
Soon after, she responded to an ad in the paper looking for a live-in maid. She then moved to New York where she was charged with the care of a three-year-old with a terminal illness.
At the end of the summer, the young girl, unfortunately, passed away. Hairston then applied for Duke University’s Nursing School; however, she failed the eye exam and was not admitted to the nursing program. Despite this setback, Hairston refused to give up. She applied to North Carolina Central University and lived off-campus with her aunt and uncle. Using the money she had earned caring for the young girl, she was able to afford the first year of tuition.
One day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Hairston’s campus to conduct a seminar and she had the chance to meet him and hear him speal. Having this opportunity opened her eyes to the discrimination that she had faced her entire life. It encouraged her to get involved with the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King’s message. She detailed a march of two thousand students, who went from campus to a nearby Sears Roebuck and Company. The protesters had rocks and debris thrown at them, but Dr. King had taught them not to react, to just keep marching.
“Dr. King continued to talk to us as we were sitting on that parking lot,” Hairston said. “He said, ‘Sears Roebuck and Company is refusing to hire blacks. We are here to protest.’ As we sat on that parking lot the police moved in and ordered us to move, refusing the order we remain[ed] steadfast in our sitting position,” Hairston said.
Despite peacefully sitting down, the police arrived quickly, taking Hairston and the other protesters to jail.
“They put us so close in those jail cells, that if necessary we could have performed mouth to mouth resuscitation,” Hairston said.
While there, Hairston and the other protesters who were detained watched as the jail keeper had a heart attack and died. The protesters were in fear, not only for what they had seen but that they might be blamed for what happened. Despite her family’s disapproval of her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, Hairston marched in Washington, D.C. with Dr. King in August of 1963.
After graduation, she moved to New Jersey, where she received an invitation to attend the National Federation of the Blind Convention in Phoenix, Arizona. When Hairston arrived at the convention, she was given literature and asked if she preferred it written or in braille.
“Well I can no longer read print and I had not been taught braille. A light bulb went off for me. Tears began to roll down my cheeks. I thought, ‘here I am a college graduate and illiterate,’” Hairston said.
While at the convention Hairston learned about the National Federation of the Blind Trade Centers. One in particular that interested her was in Louisiana. It took her almost two years before she was able to get to the center. While she was there, they taught her technology and independent living skills. One day, Hairston went with a group of other students to New Orleans where she was tasked with finding a bus stop on her own and riding it to the Monroe Mall. Despite people on the street trying to assist her, Hariston was able to use her understanding of her surroundings and what she could hear to make her way to the bus stop. When she arrived at the Mall, the other students and staff cheered for her.
Once Hairston received this education, she was able to use her skills to improve her personal and professional life. She worked her way up the ladder and was put in a supervisory role. Despite this, she was still paid less than white people in the same position as her. Some of the people beneath her would confront her with their racist or prejudiced beliefs that they should not have to work under a blind black woman.
“Others gave me some challenges, but I had no problem writing them up for insubordination because I wasn’t going anywhere,” Hairston said.
Since then Hairston has been the President of the state chapter of the National Federation of the Blind in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. She was the co-founder of the Business of Professional Women’s Club Incorporated, where she was able to award scholarships to Black students. Additionally, she was the co-founder and coordinator for the LEAD Program, where she was responsible for teaching blind teenagers leadership, advocacy, and education skills. She was also named employee of the year at the New Jersey Department of Health and Human Services. She became a full member of the National Federation for the Blind and was elected as the first Vice-President.