- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2005

TUSCUMBIA, Ala. - It’s impossible to miss the ubiquitous brown signs for Ivy Green, birthplace of Helen Keller. She is the pride of this northern Alabama town. People here celebrate her with an annual festival and performances of the play “The Miracle Worker,” and her childhood home is preserved as a shrine.

Visitors learn that her father was a captain in the Confederacy. They see the water pump where the blind and deaf child made the connection that things have names, with teacher Anne Sullivan spelling w-a-t-e-r into her hand. Photos of the adult Miss Keller with U.S. presidents hang in a museum.

Not on display are Miss Keller’s membership in the Socialist Party, her letters praising the work of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, her anti-war essays or much about her as a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Alabama’s favorite daughter was left of center, to say the least. Different from the political conservatism so dominant in her home state. But her politics didn’t keep Miss Keller off the state quarter, and her statue will appear in the U.S. Capitol, replacing educator, congressman and Confederate Gen. Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry as one of Alabama’s two entries in the National Statuary Hall.

Supporters say Miss Keller is universally beloved for her courage over adversity, her championing of the underdog, her indomitable brilliance.

Some historians have a different take. They agree she was one of the country’s most remarkable women, but say Alabama history tends to freeze her at age 7 or gloss over her adult complexities. Most people have no clue she was a leftist.

“What we do is we sanitize people to make them heroes or heroines. … And, frankly, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Society needs more heroes and heroines,” said Auburn University history professor Wayne Flynt, who described Miss Keller as a “crusading socialist” in his latest book, “Alabama in the 20th Century.”

“She was very politically liberal for her time, and that’s what makes her controversial in Alabama today,” Mr. Flynt said. “Does Alabama really want an extremely liberal woman who was a suffragist, who was a pacifist and didn’t want to go to war, who attacked big business for child labor?”

The state Legislature has approved the Keller statue, as did a congressional committee. With Alabama first lady Patsy Riley promoting it and raising funds, the project is moving swiftly and with little opposition.

The idea to replace Curry with Miss Keller started at the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind. President Joe Busta helped push through supporting legislation three years ago.

The plan for the statue is to display the 7-year-old Miss Keller at the backyard water pump.

“It’s the image that’s best known throughout the state, the country and the world: that singular moment at the pump where she makes the connection to language,” said Mr. Busta, now vice president of development and alumni relations at the University of South Alabama.

Miss Keller will be one of the few women displayed at the Capitol and the first person ever with disabilities.

“That’s heavy stuff,” Mr. Busta said. “She not only represents us well, but she represents all in our state and country and world with disabilities.”

Some of Miss Keller’s relatives still live in Alabama. Great-nephew William Johnson Jr., a Tuscumbia lawyer, remembers visits with his grandmother’s famous sister, but conversation was not political. He was 25 when she died in 1968, so he did not know her during her most active days. He thinks her socialism faded as she aged and as times changed.

“Her early radical political views came about in the earlier 1900s to 1925,” said Mr. Johnson. “I don’t know whether it was a phase. In any event, she apparently didn’t pursue it in her more mature years. Everybody gets to be a radical when they’re young.”

Miss Keller joined the Socialist Party in 1909. “There’s no arguing that,” said Victoria Ott, an assistant professor of history at Birmingham-Southern College.

Miss Ott ticks off the movements of the early 1900s with which Miss Keller was associated: women’s suffrage, birth control, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Some of Miss Keller’s harshest words were against war and the businesses she accused of benefiting from it.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide