“But For Those First Affections…”

A Look Back To The Power of 504 – Some Reflections and Recollections of a CIL Old-Timer.

With apologies to all, because rather than create something new for this historic anniversary, I have just dredged up a number of things from the past, as old-timers so often do.

Today (April 5, 2017) is the 40th Anniversary of the 26-Day 1977 504 Sit-In for Disability Rights at 50 UN Plaza in San Francisco, which at that time housed the local Federal Office of Health, Education and Welfare. It is where over a hundred people with a wide variety of disabilities, and from a wide variety of backgrounds and their supporters demonstrated by occupying the HEW offices. resulting in the passage of the regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act; regulations that would later become the model for the regulations implementing the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

I am proud of the fact (read blessed) that this history is part of my own personal history; and that helping others to remember that history through the years is part of my history as well. For me, these things are inextricably bound.

Having begun working at CIL in 1974, I participated in the 1977 demonstration, marching around outside with hundreds of others for 26 days with my picket sign (which in the 1990s was on display in the Smithsonian National American History Museum’s "Disability Rights History" exhibit, right next to the Greensboro lunch counter). At the time I audio recorded over 6 1/2 hours of TV news coverage of the demonstration. Which turned out to be a good thing, because just about all of the TV coverage of that demonstration was subsequently destroyed / overwritten.

The picket sign that Ken carried

Twenty years after the Sit-In, when I was working at DREDF, I organized a committee to celebrate the 20th anniversary. We threw a great party for over 600 people at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, produced The Power of 504, an 18 minute video history of the sit-in, and We Shall Not Be Moved, an outstanding hour-long radio documentary on the history of the demonstration, featuring audio of the news broadcast, as well as contemporary recollections by organizers and participants in the Sit-In (Judy Heumann, Mary Lou Breslin, and Corbett O’Toole), and some who have since passed away (including Cece Weeks & Kitty Cone). The radio program was produced by KPFA’s Asata Iman. Both the film and radio documentary were able to rely heavily on the audio recordings I had made some 20 years earlier.

Reflecting on the film, here are excerpts from remarks I made about it in 2007, at the City of San Francisco’s 30th Anniversary celebration. They are still relevant:

“In a poem that William Wordsworth wrote about getting older and looking back, he said:

‘But for those first affections,
those shadowy recollections,
which be they what they may,
are yet the fountainlight of all our day,
are yet the masterlight of all our seeing.’

For many of us, the relationships that we forged in those early days of CIL, and the early days of the disability rights movement, are very much at the core of who we are today. Whether our roles in it were large or small, the 504 Sit-In was, and continues to be, a focal point in our lives. A moment that continues to this day to inform how we see ourselves and how we view the world.”

In looking back, and seeing today how much further we still have to go, I can’t help thinking of the great Civil Rights Lyric from the 1960s:

They say that freedom is a constant struggle
They say that freedom is a constant struggle
They say that freedom is a constant struggle
Oh Lord, we’ve struggled so long
We must be free, we must be free.

We are all part of this ongoing struggle, or “work” if you will, as we continue to advocate for ourselves and for others.

For me, the importance of this documentary and of this history, is that it shows that the 504 Sit-In and the disability rights movement was a people’s event and a people’s movement. Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act wasn’t just something that Congress passed, and the ADA wasn’t just something that George Bush signed, sole photographic representations notwithstanding.

It’s regrettable that to this day, high school history textbooks give just give that single sentence in talking about either 504 (if they talk about it at all) or the ADA — They say that these laws were something passed by Congress or signed by a president and essentially were something given as a gift to people with disabilities. Period.

I think it’s important to note, and to think about what it means, that it took 13 years between 504 and the ADA – Thirteen years before people with disabilities were guaranteed *their* civil rights in all areas of public life.

It’s a truism that we cannot understand the present without understanding the past, and nowhere is this truer than in the arena of disability rights. It is true not only for our national history, but equally for our personal and collective histories as well.”

In 2008, I initiated a project gathering together a lot of the fragile media (audio cassettes and video cassettes) that many of us had had in our drawers and closets and offices for decades. Working in collaboration with DREDF, and the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, the materials have been digitized and one of these days will be available online. These include Lucy Muir’s recordings of the internal meetings at the Federal Building, and the rally speeches that she entrusted to me prior to her death in 2013. Needless to say, funds are needed to complete the 504 digital archive project.

A final note: For the ten years that I worked for the City, every day I would get off BART at the Civic Center Station and ride the escalator ending up in front of the Federal Building at 50 UN Plaza. And going back to BART every day, I would walk past the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, where we held that wonderful 20th Anniversary party. It was a great way to start and end every day.

Ken Stein, Berkeley, CA
April 5, 2017


DREDF 504 Page

The Power of 504 An 18-minute documentary video, which captures the drama and emotions of the historic civil rights demonstration.

We Shall Not Be Moved (58 min radio documentary produced by KPFA’s Asata Iman for the 504 20th Anniversary Celebration and Commemoration Committee in 1977.

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