Ever Lee Hairston is proof that anyone can emerge from the humblest of beginnings to become a leader in their field.
Born with retinitis pigmentosa, which over the years has left her blind, Ever Lee picked cotton as a child on the plantation in North Carolina where her parents and grandparents were sharecroppers. She considers sharecropping another form of slavery, and between the grueling work and having to miss portions of school, she could not move on from that life soon enough.
Dreams and inspirations
Her dream was to become a nurse, but when she failed the vision exam Ever was devastated, she says. But still she persevered. She went on to attend North Carolina Central University, earning a teaching degree. During her third year there, in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King visited the campus – and ultimately shaped the direction of Ever Lee’s life.
At that time, she says, Sears Roebuck and Co. refused to hire Black people. As in many parts of the country, Black people could not eat at lunch counters – they had to order and pick up food from windows at the back of restaurants – and weren’t allowed in movie theaters.
“Dr. King organized a protest march from the campus to Sears, and I ended up going to jail that night,” Ever Lee says. “We were sitting in the parking lot, and when the police ordered us to move we refused. We sat there and were singing and really doing our best to enjoy ourselves, but we were frightened. Singing helped us maintain our calmness.”
The police roared up in buses so quickly Ever Lee and the other protesters thought they’d be run over. But instead, they were rounded up and taken to jail, and released the next day. Ever Lee’s family wasn’t happy about her involvement in the civil rights movement, because the affiliation could cost them their jobs. But she was determined.
“We have to take risks in life, and that was the risk I felt I had to take,” Ever Lee says. So later that summer she traveled to Washington, D.C., to hear Dr. King give his iconic speech – “I Have a Dream” – at the Lincoln Memorial.
“That’s how I learned to advocate, and going to the National Federation of the Blind was another step,” Ever Lee says. “I had advocated for civil rights for Black people like me and now I’m advocating for civil rights for the blind.”
Civil rights for all
Ever Lee didn’t immediately begin working with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), having become a teacher and then a counselor. But one day she received a phone call from NFB’s national center, inviting her to a convention. She realized she needed help to continue working and supporting her son, so she attended, and an enduring connection was formed.
She then received training in braille, computer skills, independent living skills, and orientation skills at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Her final exam was finding her own way to a mall in Monroe, Louisiana, after being dropped off by herself.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, the Ku Klux Klan is probably all around,’” Ever Lee recalls. “But it’s the words of Dr. King that always come to me at times like this. He would say, ‘Don’t focus on the people. Focus on the task.’ That’s what I did and I made it to the Monroe Mall. And what I learned at the center gave me the courage and confidence to do all the things I have over the years.”
She joined NFB in 1987, serving in many different roles including first vice president and later president for the New Jersey and California affiliates. She now serves on NFB’s national Board of Directors. Plus, Ever Lee has been going to Washington, D.C., to advocate for the needs of people who are blind or low vision since 1989.
For example, in recent years NFB, along with other organizations, has advocated for the passage of the Access Technology Affordability Act of 2021. The bill would make funds available to help people who are blind or low vision purchase assistive technology, which is often very expensive.
Keeping the dream alive
Ever Lee points out that there are many other Black leaders at NFB who are also blind – worth recognizing at any time, but especially during Black History Month. They include Ronald Brown, second vice president of NFB; Anil Lewis, who runs the Jernigan Institute and its blindness programs at the national center; Denise Avant, who is in charge of membership; Dorothy Griffin, president of the Georgia affiliate; Barbara Manuel, president of the Alabama affiliate; and Shawn Callaway, who serves on the national Board.
These leaders, and so many others through the years, have helped advance the field of blindness. That’s why NFB is in early discussions about establishing a museum to celebrate its history. After all, as Ever Lee says, NFB is a civil rights organization.
“Something Dr. King believed in is civil rights for all, and NFB and I certainly believe that as a blindness organization,” Ever Lee says. “We all deserve to have the best and all of us at NFB have pledged to participate actively in the organization’s efforts to achieve equality, opportunity, and security for the blind. It doesn’t say one ethnicity, one race – it’s for all of us.”
As NFB works toward its goal of establishing a Civil Rights Museum of the Blind, The Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind is once again open for tours. It features engaging, interactive exhibits that celebrate leaders in the field whose stories and lived experiences can inspire people who are blind/ low vision – and perhaps even motivate the leaders of the future.
You can learn more about Ever Lee Hairston’s journey by reading her book, Ever Blind Ambition: One Woman’s Journey to Greatness Despite Her Blindness. Check out Empish Thomas’s review on the APH VisionAware website