Ever Lee Hairston: A Black leader in the blindness field and civil rights

Photo of Ever Lee Hairston
Photo of Ever Lee Hairston

Ever Lee Hairston is not only one of the countless Black leaders who work in the field of blindness, or have done so through the years. She is also a civil rights leader – and her experience with the civil rights movement inspired her to help others who are blind, like her. 

Lighting the flame 

Her advocacy was ignited in 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., visited North Carolina Central University, where Ever Lee was in her third year of earning a teaching degree.  

At that time, Ever Lee says, Sears Roebuck and Co. refused to hire Black people. As in many parts of the country, Black people could not eat at lunch counters – they had to order and pick up food from windows at the back of restaurants – and weren’t allowed in movie theaters.  

“Dr. King organized a protest march from the campus to Sears, and I ended up going to jail that night,” Ever Lee says. “We were sitting in the parking lot, and when the police ordered us to move we refused. We sat there and were singing and really doing our best to enjoy ourselves, but we were frightened. Singing helped us maintain our calmness.” 

The police roared up in buses so quickly Ever and the other protesters thought they’d be run over. But instead, they were rounded up and taken to jail and released the next day. 

Some risks are worth taking 

At the time, Ever Lee was living with her aunt and uncle, having previously worked on the plantation where her parents were sharecroppers. She was determined not to go back to picking cotton, but her family didn’t want her involved in the civil rights movement, because any affiliation meant they could be fired from their jobs. 

“We have to take risks in life, and that was the risk I felt I had to take,” Ever Lee says. So later that summer she traveled to Washington, D.C., to hear Dr. King give his iconic speech – “I Have a Dream” – at the Lincoln Memorial. 

“That’s how I learned to advocate, and going to the National Federation of the Blind was another step,” Ever Lee says. “I had advocated for civil rights for Black people like me and now I’m advocating for civil rights for the blind.” 

“Focus on the task” 

Ever Lee was born with retinitis pigmentosa, and over the years slowly lost her vision, which resulted in the loss of jobs, too. She didn’t immediately begin working with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), having become a teacher and then a counselor. But one day she received a phone call from NFB’s national center, inviting her to a convention. She realized she needed help to continue working and supporting her son, so she attended, and an enduring connection was formed.  

She then received training in braille, computer skills, independent living skills, and orientation skills at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Her final exam was finding her own way to a mall in Monroe, Louisiana, after being dropped off by herself. 

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, the Ku Klux Klan is probably all around,’” Ever Lee recalls. “But it’s the words of Dr. King that always come to me at times like this. He would say, ‘Don’t focus on the people. Focus on the task.’ That’s what I did and I made it to the Monroe Mall. And what I learned at the center gave me the courage and confidence to do all the things I have over the years.” 

She joined NFB in 1987, serving in many different roles including first vice president and later president for the New Jersey and California affiliates. She now serves on NFB’s national Board of Directors. Plus, Ever Lee has been going to Washington, D.C., to advocate for the needs of people who are blind or visually impaired since 1989.  

For example, in recent years NFB, along with other organizations, has advocated for the passage of the Access Technology Affordability Act of 2021. The bill would make funds available to help people who are blind or visually impaired purchase assistive technology, which is often very expensive.  

Keeping the dream alive 

Ever Lee points out that there are many other Black leaders at NFB who are also blind – worth recognizing at any time, but especially during Black History Month. They include Ronald Brown, second vice president of NFB; Anil Lewis, who runs the Jernigan Institute and its blindness programs at the national center; Denise Avant, who is in charge of membership; Dorothy Griffin, president of the Georgia affiliate; Barbara Manuel, president of the Alabama affiliate; and Shawn Callaway, who serves on the national Board.  

These leaders, and so many others through the years, have helped advance the field of blindness. That’s why NFB is in early discussions about establishing a museum to celebrate its history. After all, as Ever says, NFB is a civil rights organization.  

“Something Dr. King believed in is civil rights for all, and NFB and I certainly believe that as a blindness organization,” Ever Lee says. “We all deserve to have the best and all of us at NFB have pledged to participate actively in the organization’s efforts to achieve equality, opportunity, and security for the blind. It doesn’t say one ethnicity, one race – it’s for all of us.” 

As NFB works toward its goal of establishing a Civil Rights Museum of the Blind, The Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind is once again open for tours. It features engaging, interactive exhibits that celebrate leaders in the field whose stories and lived experiences can inspire people who are visually impaired – and perhaps even motivate the leaders of the future. 

Learn More 

You can learn more about Ever Lee Hairston’s journey by reading her book, Ever Blind Ambition: One Woman’s Journey to Greatness Despite Her Blindness.  Check out Empish Thomas’s review on the APH VisionAware website