Editors’ Note: Following is the text of a speech by Ed Roberts, one of WID’s founders, at the 504 sit-in victory rally in San Francisco, April 30, 1977. We have chosen to reprint it to celebrate Ed Roberts Day, which was January 23.
Ed’s speech captures his spirit, his vision and his commitment to the disability rights movement that was in its infancy in 1977. The San Francisco sit-in, still the longest such action in a U.S. federal building, was part of a national cross-disability protest to force the Carter administration to sign regulations to enable the enforcement of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The provision made it illegal for any federal agency, federal contractor or other entity receiving public funds to discriminate against anyone “solely by reason of …handicap.”
It was just, what, three and a half weeks ago that we got here together to begin talking about something that we knew that we could do. You know, we didn’t come into this with weakness. We came into this movement to show strength, to show what we really are. Which is people who have learned, from people with disabilities, from being people considered weak, from people being people who are discriminated against daily; we’ve learned how to be strong, and we’ve demonstrated that to the people of this country.
We knew it. And now they know it. We have a long way to go. We talk about a long journey. It’s now been about 10 years since some of us have been struggling, and for years before that. There are people that will be long remembered for their contributions towards opening society; and you know, I think these next ten years together, and I don’t think we’re going to get it all done overnight, but we have one fantastic start. 504 is going to help us guarantee our own civil rights. And we have learned that through the struggle we gain tremendous strength. We are much stronger than we were three and a half weeks ago. I hope that not only will this record for a sit-in be in the Guinness Book of Records for you all to show your grandchildren, but that you’ll remember what you did here, what we did together.
Winston Churchill once said, “Never have so few, done so much, for so many.” And this example, this example of people loving each other, committed to something that is right, is one that I know I will always remember. And you know, there is nothing like building a movement on success. We have never been defeated. You think about it. Whenever we have brought ourselves together, whenever we have joined various disabilities together, we find our strength. Our strength is in our unity. And our strength is in our righteousness. Because this is a cause that we’ve all invested our life in.
We have to begin to think very clearly, that what we need to do is help raise the consciousness of our fellow Americans with disabilities, to help them come out from behind, from the back wards, from the institutions, from the places, the garbage heaps, of our society. We have to stop the warehousing, the segregation, of our brothers and sisters. We have a long way to go. But we have one giant step ahead.
Together we have achieved something that relatively few people achieve in their lives. We have learned more than anything else, about each other, about how much we love each other, and that commitment, that dedication to each other, will carry through the rest of our lives.
We have begun to ensure a future for ourselves, and a future for the millions of young people with disabilities, who I think will find a new world as they begin to grow up. Who may not have to suffer the kinds of discrimination that we have suffered in our own lives. But that if they do suffer it, they’ll be strong and they’ll fight back.
And that’s the greatest example, that we, who are considered the weakest, the most helpless people in our society, are the strongest, and will not tolerate segregation, will not tolerate a society which sees us as less than whole people. But that we will together, with our friends, will reshape the image that this society has of us.
We are no longer asking for charity. We are demanding our rights!
It’s not unusual that a movement like this would have its real heart in this area. There are many committed people in this area — Berkeley, San Francisco, the Peninsula, all of Northern California. People have come together and have shown that in our unity is our strength; that in our division is our weakness; that we are going to see attempts to divide us so that we can easily be conquered. But we will not allow that to happen.
I want to say to all of you that from the beginning I knew we could win this. And I didn’t see any of you waiver. We knew that we had set a course that we all were gonna follow. We knew the only thing we could tolerate was victory.
We are victorious. We are strong. And we will march ahead together. And nothing will stop our achieving equal opportunity, and the right to move about freely in this society.
We will storm the schools and open them up. We will be sure that each person with a disability who has special needs has the money and the power to gain what they need to move them back into the mainstream of society. And we will assure a future for the millions of people who are not now disabled. You know, you come to think of it, that we are assuring a future for a lot of people we don’t know at all, and who don’t know that their future may be, very similar to ours.
I couldn’t be prouder of us together. And I couldn’t be happier. And I cannot think of a better way to go into tomorrow, but with rededicating ourselves to the struggle that’s ahead, to enforce 504 Regulations, to open up more doors, to create choices for people, not the choice of segregation.
I thank you. I join you. I celebrate with you. I rededicate myself to work with you, to ensure the future.
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