June 7, 2021
From Spectre Journal
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The 26-day mass sit-in of April 1977 at the San Francisco headquarters of the federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) was a watershed moment in U.S. history.1 Not only did this struggle over Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 directly lead to the promulgation of the first seminal piece of federal disability anti-discrimination legislation – without which the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 would not have been possible – but it also marked the advent of the modern disability justice movement. “Second to the signing of the [504] regulations the way we wanted them to be signed,” stated sit-in leader Kitty Cone on the occasion of the group’s declaration of victory on April 30, 1977, “the most important thing that came out of this is the public birth of a disabled movement.”

People all over the country, not just people shut in convalescence homes, but everyone in this country has learned that disabled people have a tremendous amount of strength, that we are capable of leading a struggle that has won major gains from the government. There’s a great deal of self-confidence, a great deal of pride, that we have given to ourselves and to disabled people all over the country. But we’ve also shown that if you wage a really effective struggle and you don’t give up, you can win a victory.2

As one of the central organizers of the near-unprecedented feat of political strategy and collaboration that went into the victory of the struggle, Cone knew well the historic import of their achievement. With 120 disabled activists and supporters occupying the federal building inside, hundreds more regularly rallying in support on the outside, and crucial extensions of practical assistance forthcoming from sundry other social movements – including that of labor unions, LGBT activists, feminist groups, and racial justice organizations – the 504 victory was a paradigm of cross-movement, cross-cultural, and collaborative solidarity in the fight against social oppression. Of particular note in this vein, though reported and theorized to a lesser extent at the time, was the intersectional positioning of Blackness and disability as mutually reinforcing matrices of the struggle.3

The Pre-History of 504 and the Politics of Solidarity

San Francisco in the 1970s was a seething ferment of radical, emancipatory unrest. Activism against the U.S. war on Vietnam was widespread on the campuses and amongst war veterans; disabled students at Berkeley College were agitating against structural impediments to their equality; gender and sexual liberation groups were challenging ingrained norms and roles; and the mass struggle for Black freedom – personified by the movements associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and others – was upending virtually all pre-existing relations of American society.

This was the crucible that shaped the personages, politics, and characteristics of the 504 movement. Linkages made, lessons learned, and leaderships forged amidst the general social upheaval preceding the 504 sit-in ultimately proved indispensable to its success. Figures like Cone, who through her experience as an organizer with the Socialist Workers Party, had spent many years involved in campaigns against racial segregation and had developed a sense of the utmost importance of building coalitions and networks of solidarity across social struggles.4

Another key figure was Donald Galloway, one of the first Black people to occupy a leading position within the Berkeley Independent Living Center (ILC) movement in the mid-1970s. Galloway had long been pressuring the ILC to take a more active role in the politics of racism and the life of the Black community. Galloway was keenly aware of the fact that disability activism surrounding the ILC had been negligent toward the specific experience of Black disabled people in San Francisco and nearby Oakland. This negligence, Galloway argued, was to the detriment of both the ILC and the Black disabled population who could benefit from the resources, politics, and activist opportunities offered by the former.5

I didn’t see very many black people. I was the first black person that I knew of at the Center, hired on the staff full-time. I was the only black, and I started bringing black people into the center as drivers and attendants, and bringing in professional types…. There was just a handful of us that came in, but we came together and decided that we needed some input into this system….

We were in a predominantly black community…. The movement was predominantly white. We needed to reach out to the black community in Oakland, get the Black Panthers involved, and any other group that would like to be involved.6

Although Galloway ultimately felt frustrated in his attempts to establish overt connections between the disability movement and the local Black population, his efforts were not without significant posterior effect. As Galloway later recalled:

There was a severely disabled man in the Black Panther Party7 named Brad [Lomax], and Brad was our link to the Black Panthers. We would go and provide him with attendant care and transportation because we had a small transportation system going, a fleet of vans going out to the community. Ed [Roberts, the ILC director] made a decision that he wanted us to get more involved with the Black Panthers and with Oakland. So we would go to some of their meetings and explain our programs. Because Brad, one of their members, had a severe disability, we were quite accepted.

This connection with Bradley Lomax and the Black Panther Party (BPP) would prove to be eminently pivotal in the 504 struggle to come.

The Black Freedom Struggle and 504

Lomax had been a member of the BPP for nearly a decade by the time of the 504 sit-in. He had joined in the late 1960s in Washington where he was actively involved as an organizer. In the mid-1970s, Lomax moved to Oakland where he became acutely conscious of the parallel forms of oppression he experienced as a Black person as well a disabled person. Writing in a belated obituary for the New York Times’ “Overlooked” feature, Connelly8 recounts:

In Oakland, Lomax struggled to navigate its transit system. To board a bus, his brother, Glenn, would have to lift him out of his wheelchair, carry him up the steps and place him in a seat, then go back to retrieve the wheelchair. Such indignities galvanized Lomax to consider the plight of people with disabilities in a world that didn’t make it easy for them.




Source: Spectrejournal.com