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October 14, 2002

Likeness on Quarter Raises Interest in Keller's Activism

From: Newhouse News Service (NNS)
Oct. 14, 2002

c.2002 Newhouse News Service

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- As Helen Keller felt the cool liquid pour over her hands and the letters W-A-T-E-R formed in her palm by her teacher, the young deaf and blind girl suddenly grasped the concept of language.

Communication was finally hers. The epiphany at the water pump outside her Tuscumbia home allowed Keller boundless opportunities to live fully and richly.

The symbolic weight of her tale recently landed her on the face of the Alabama state quarter, coined Spirit of Courage, to be minted next year.

But Keller -- named one of Time magazine's 100 heroes and icons of the 20th century and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- also tapped her intellect and moxie to advocate her political beliefs and pursue her fancies despite the potential for controversy.

She traveled to 39 countries and corresponded with five U.S. presidents, from Calvin Coolidge to Lyndon Baines Johnson, to improve the circumstances of the blind and deaf-blind.

She embraced socialism, officially joining the Socialist Party of Massachusetts in 1909, and for years wrote articles in defense of the party.

She opposed U.S. entry into World War I, co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union and supported suffrage, trade unions and strikes.

She corresponded with the famous and the infamous, from Alexander Graham Bell to Mark Twain to Emma Goldman, an anarchist who fought for birth control and women's equality.

She even ventured into vaudeville, touring the country for four years and performing a 20-minute act with teacher Anne Sullivan.

Plenty of people noticed, particularly when it came to socialism.

Newspapers splashed Keller's activities across their front pages. The FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, kept a file on her.

"She really had very strong opinions about very many things," said Helen Selsdon, an archival consultant at the American Foundation for the Blind, which holds many of Keller's writings and memorabilia. "The more I have read her correspondence, the less I have felt she was a mythical female."

In 1912, Keller published a response to such interest in the New York Call, saying she hoped to turn the notoriety to "beneficent uses" and spread the words of socialism.

By any measure, Keller's accomplishments would cow the ordinary.

Struck deaf and blind in 1882 when she was only 18 months old, Keller learned her first word -- water -- at the age of 7 under the tutelage of Sullivan.

She learned to not only read German and English Braille, but to lip-read by placing her fingers on the lips and throats of those who talked to her.

She gained acceptance to Radcliffe College, the women's affiliate of Harvard University, by passing a rigorous entrance exam, and she graduated cum laude.

She published dozens of articles and books, including "The Story of My Life," which first appeared in serial form in the Ladies Home Journal.

Despite the celebrity she gained in part from the dramatization of her life in plays and movies, Keller was said to have a personality unmarred by the adulation.

"I believe that all through these dark and silent years God has been using my life for a purpose I do not know," she was quoted as saying in the New York Times shortly before her death in 1968.

"But one day I shall understand and then I will be satisfied."

(Vicki McClure is a staff writer for the Birmingham (Ala.) News. She can be contacted at

©2002 Newhouse News Service