LOST DISABILITY CLASSICS:
The Seeing Hand
by Helen Keller How I Became a Socialist
by Helen Keller
Helen Keller & the FBIMention the name "Helen Keller" and most Americans think of Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker. Keller is, in the popular mind, the ultimate "super-crip," the deaf-blind girl who "overcame" her disabilities through the help of an extraordinary teacher.
"But the blind man," Keller wrote in 1911, "cannot become an independent, self-supporting member of society . . . until all his seeing brothers have opportunity to work to the full extent of their ability." She repeated this theme the following year in a letter she wrote in support of striking mill workers in Little Falls, New York. "If they are denied a living wage, I also am defrauded. While they are industrial slaves, I cannot be free." An advocate of political organizing, Keller wrote in 1915 that "Rights are things that we get when we are strong enough to claim them."
With her near-beatification in the years since her death, it is difficult to recognize what a controversial figure Keller was during her life. Born in 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama, she came of age in an America where racial segregation was law, unions were violently suppressed, birth control was illegal and the idea of women as voters (let alone politicians) was dismissed as laughably absurd. Keller publicly took a position on all these issues, and was vehemently criticized for doing so.
In December 2000, I wrote to the U. S. Department of Justice asking to see Helen Keller's FBI file, under the provisions of the Freedom of Information/ Privacy Act (FoIPA). What the FBI sent me, in January 2001, was a folder containing 43 photocopied pages. Sixteen additional pages, according to a "Deleted Page Information Sheet," were held back as being "outside the scope" of my request.
Substantial portions of the pages I was sent in this original batch were excised "under Section 552a (Privacy Act)," which allows for such deletions if the material "could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," or "could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source." Excisions on one page were so extensive that every word was covered over, except for the underlined phrase, "Other Communist Activities, Fronts, and Miscellaneous."
I appealed, asking to see the excised portions and deleted pages. In late May 2001, I received an additional 24 pages. Twenty pages were from the June, 1947 issue of the "Monthly Summary of Trends and Developments," identified as a publication of "the National Americanism Commission/Sub Committee on Subversive Activities" of the American Legion. The Summary is a catch-all of rumor, innuendo, and red-baiting, castigating such "Communist" agents and sympathizers as Charlie Chaplin, Dorothy Parker, Edward G. Robinson -- and Helen Keller.
In his letter accompanying this material, Richard L. Huff, co-director of the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Information and Privacy, wrote that "The only information [now] withheld from you consists of the names of FBI law enforcement employees. The FBI properly withheld this information because it is protected from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act . . ."
The earliest item in Keller's file is a handwritten note to J. Edgar Hoover dated January 2, 1925, asking for information on the funding of state institutions for the blind. This matter came to the writer's attention during a lecture by "the Well Known Blind girl" Helen Keller. The Keller file ends with a typed cover letter of June 24, 1964, to a "memorandum . . . summarizing information in our files concerning captioned individual as of that time."
In the nearly four decades separating these two documents, J. Edgar Hoover had turned the FBI into a national intelligence service specializing in the surveillance of political dissidents. "Under Hoover," writes Ronald Kessler in The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency, (Simon & Schuster, 1993), "the Bureau illegally broke into homes and businesses, engaged in wiretapping without proper authorization, collected derogatory information for political reasons, and leaked to the press damaging information about people like Martin Luther King. Confusing political dissent with subversion, Hoover's FBI spied on Americans exercising their constitutional rights of free expression and tried to disrupt their political movements. . . ." Using its files to blackmail presidents and Congress, Hoover remained FBI director until his death in 1972.
In January 1925, "the well-known blind girl" Helen Keller was 44 years old. She had published three books, including her best-seller The Story of My Life, toured the world, and had already been the subject of at least one movie (Deliverance, 1919). By June 1964, she was retired from public life, after a stroke three years earlier. She died in 1968.
Like many progressives of the early 20th century, Helen Keller believed that socialism offered the only alternative to the unbridled and rapacious capitalism of sweatshops and child labor. "I am no worshipper of cloth of any colour," she wrote in 1912, " but I love the red flag and what it symbolizes to me and other Socialists. I have a red flag hanging in my study..." When asked what young women could do to improve the world, she urged them to study industrial economics. "I am a militant suffragette," she told a British feminist in 1911, "because I believe suffrage will lead to Socialism and to me Socialism is the ideal cause."
All of this was before Hoover's appointment as FBI director in 1924. According to biographer Joseph P. Lash (Helen and Teacher, Delacorte Press 1980), Keller had by the late 1920s begun to softpedal her radical politics, devoting most of her time to fundraising for the American Foundation for the Blind. It is probably for this reason that there was never a full-fledged investigation of Helen Keller by the FBI. But while the Bureau may not have spent agent-hours investigating (or harassing) Keller directly, it did take an interest in her political activities.
A memorandum dated November 8, 1956, notes that the April 9, 1938 issue of "an east coast Communist newspaper" the Daily Worker carried an article about an appeal to lift the arms embargo against the Spanish government, which was then struggling against the military uprising led by General Francisco Franco (with the support of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini). The petition was sponsored by the American Friends of Spanish Democracy, and signed by Helen Keller. "The American Friends of Spanish Democracy," according to an FBI memo of July 1, 1953, "was referred to by the [Congressional] Special Committee on Un-American Activities, in its report dated March 29, 1944" as a Communist front organization.
Keller's name popped up in the Daily Worker on other occasions, and was duly noted by the FBI each time. "The . . . issue dated February 15, 1939, reported that Helen Keller would speak at a memorial meeting to be held under the auspices of the Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade," American volunteers who went to Spain in the 1930s to fight on the republican side. Like the Friends of Spanish Democracy, the brigade was "referred to as a Communist-front organization by the Special Committee on Un-American Activities."
There is, of course, an important distinction between being a "Communist" or "Communist front," and merely being "referred to" or even "cited" as such by professional red-baiters such as the House Committee on Un-American Activities. (Not to mention that presumably even Communists and their "fellow travelers" are entitled to the rights of free speech and assembly). This "referred to" language becomes especially suspect when one realizes that FBI files, as Kessler reported, were often made available to selected individuals and organizations without the knowledge (and certainly without the consent) of their subjects.
In Keller's case, the "name check" memo of July 1953 ends with the disclaimer that the material "is furnished for your confidential information and is not to be disseminated outside your agency," and each page is marked "SECURITY INFORMATION CONFIDENTIAL", but this was hardly an effort to protect her reputation. What remains protected to this day, however, are the identities of those public officials who asked the FBI to provide them with "information" on Keller. Nor is it known to what use, if any, this "information" was put.
Keller's activities were of interest to the Bureau even when she was disassociating herself from the radical left. Her file notes that she resigned as Honorary National Chairman of the American Rescue Ship Mission, summarizing an article in the February 8, 1941 issue of the New York Times as saying that Keller had concluded "that she had been used as a front for controlling figures more interested in Communism than in the [Mission's] avowed purpose" of rescuing Spanish republicans after Franco's victory. It also reports that Keller denounced a late 1952 international peace conference in Vienna, which had used her name to solicit support, "as a mask for the products of Stalinist propaganda."
Other items, though, more or less repeat the theme of Keller as Communist sympathizer or dupe, often with a less-than-scrupulous concern for the facts:
¥"A letterhead of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, Incorporated . . . dated November 10, 1948, reflected that Helen Keller was a sponsor of that organization. The National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, Incorporated, was cited by the Attorney General as a Communist organization." Other members of the NCASF at that time were actor Raymond Massey, New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Bishop Henry Sherrill, and Albert Einstein.
¥"According to a reliable source, Helen Keller was a sponsor of the Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions. . . . Keller was listed as one of the Speakers at a rally at Madison Square Gardens in New York City on December 4, 1945, which was sponsored by the Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions, Incorporated, which organization was cited as a Communist front by the Special Committee on Un-American Activities, U. S. House of Representatives." This "reliable source" apparently didn't think it important to report how this "Communist front" began life as the "Independent Voters Committee of the Arts and Sciences for Roosevelt" in the 1944 presidential campaign. Among the other "un-American" causes it embraced at the 1945 rally was the civilian control of atomic energy, while other subversives who appeared at its events included Orson Welles, Sinclair Lewis, and Vice-President Henry Wallace.
¥"It was reported that Helen Keller, blind author and educator, was one of a group of individuals sending messages of condolence on the occasion of the funeral of Mother Bloor, well-known Communist Party member on August 14, 1951." Lash identifies Ella Reeve Bloor as "a legendary figure in the American labor movement, whom Helen had known" for decades. And so on.
Keller's own response to this sort of red-baiting can be seen in the "name check" of July 1, 1953. "The Washington, D.C., Times Herald issue dated January 24, 1948, carried an article headlined, "Plan to Smear Red-Probers Hit by Congressman," wherein it was reported that Helen Keller was one of the original sponsors of the Committee of One Thousand." The committee was predictably tagged as "a Communist created and controlled front organization" as "cited by the California Committee on Un-American Activities. . . . In March 1948, there was made available to this Bureau a copy of a letter which was sent to the Speaker of the House of Representatives in protest against the action of the Committee on Un-American Activities of the House of Representatives. Helen Keller was listed as one of the signers of this letter."
Much of the rest of the material on Keller is entirely mundane. Many pages are simply photo-copies of the "Keller, Helen Adams" entries of contemporary editions of Who's Who in America and Current Biography. Other pages are copies of form letters Keller sent to J. Edgar Hoover on behalf of the American Foundation for the Blind and its various projects.
"You have doubtless read of Korea's countless war casualties," she wrote the director on November 26, 1954. "Yet the most poignant aspect of the total disaster is the tragic fate of so many of Korea's children -- their eyes blinded by war. . . . Recognizing that there can be no nobler purpose than to comfort suffering children I have asked the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind to launch, as part of its world-wide service, a crusade to aid Korea's blind youngsters. . . . Fervently I pray that you will help me . . . by sending a gift today. . . ."
The letter was funneled to an FBI staffer, who replied in a memo dated November 30, 1954, ("Subject: HELEN KELLER SOLICITATION FOR AID TO THE BLIND"). It was recommended that "inasmuch as it is a form letter and in view of the large number of similar requests received by the Director, it is not felt that this letter should be acknowledged."
This note was sent to a Mr. Nichols, presumably Louis B. Nichols, long-time head of the "Crime Records Division," which Ronald Kessler identifies as the "austere sounding name given to the public and Congressional relations arm of the FBI, started in 1934."
The name of the memo's writer, however, remains deleted.
Fred Pelka is author of The ABC-CLIO Companion to the Disability Rights Movement (ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1997)
WHAT DO YOU THINK of this story? Click to tell us.