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January 6–The Insurrection and Helen Keller

I watched, as did you, in disbelief as a mob of thugs scaled walls, overpowered police, smashed glass, smashed heads, and stormed into our nation’s capitol. They tromped across Statuary Hall, brandishing their flagpoles as weapons.

It was much later, after order was being restored, that I thought about the statues and wondered if they had been harmed. I remembered the day one statue was unveiled.

THE UNVEILING:

Helen Keller in US Capitol
A blind woman “sees” the figure of Helen Keller the day it was unveiled in Statuary Hall of the US Capitol.

I was present at the unveiling of the statue of Helen Keller in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol in October, 2009, and an still in awe of the experience.

First the blind children present, then the adults came forward to “see” the statue with their fingers. Reverence played on their faces, followed by tears of joy, and I was very moved. And proud to have served on the committee in Alabama that sponsored the statue.

WHY HELEN KELLER?

Each state is allotted two statues in Statuary Hall, and most made their selections about a hundred years ago, meaning most are long-forgotten men. Alabama wanted to update their representative and chose Helen Keller as the subject.

Helen Keller lost her sight, hearing, and speech as an infant, yet she became a world-renowned educator, humanitarian, and advocate for the handicapped, women, and children. She met with world leaders, wrote many books, co-founded the ACLU, and influenced legislation and policy in many countries. 

The statue the committee chose shows Helen as a child standing at the pump behind her house in Tuscumbia, Alabama. The pump represents her breakthrough, the moment she realized that the water she felt on her hand from the pump corresponded to the word “water,” which opened the world to her.

IT WASN’T EASY:

Problem was, the architect of the US Capitol has authority over everything about the statues. While there were eight women honored already, our Helen would be the first child. And she was standing at a pump, not in a traditional formal pose. Both were departures from all precedent and tradition, and the Alabama delegation wrangled with the architect for almost two years before he conceded and approved the statue.

Almost another two years to sculpt and cast the statue, so that the unveiling was a long time coming. It opened with appropriate pomp and fanfare led by pipes and drums in 1776 attire. Nancy Pelosi presided, members of Congress attended, as did a delegation of students from The Alabama School for the Deaf and Blind in Talledega. One little girl, a six-year old, belted out “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Line” and brought the Congressmen to their feet to join in the chorus.

After the unveiling, most of the spectators held back to allow the blind first, then the deaf and the deaf leading the blind who “saw” the statue through their fingers. The smiles on their faces brought happy tears to my eyes..

Frank’s role and mine were miniscule, just enough to gain entry with the Alabama folks but what a privilege it was. My thanks go to Helen Keller Johnson, niece of Helen Keller, and then-governor Bob Riley and Mrs. Riley for taking the lead.

As far as I have been able to learn, the statues were unharmed on January 6. Nevertheless, Statuary Hall and the Capitol itself were defiled by the mob’s attempt to overthrow our democratic government.

 

 

 

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