Carla Crowder: Hellen Keller--The Awkward Fact Alabama Ignores -- She Was a Leftwinger

Roundup: Talking About History

Carla Crowder, Newhouse News Service (5-15-05):

TUSCUMBIA , ALA. -- It’s impossible to miss the ubiquitous brown signs for Ivy Green, the birthplace of Helen Keller. She’s the pride of the north Alabama town of Tuscumbia. Townspeople celebrate her with an annual festival and performances of "The Miracle Worker" play, and her childhood home is preserved like 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 Helen Keller with U.S. presidents hang in a museum.

Not on display are 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 helping to found the American Civil Liberties Union.

Alabama’s favorite daughter was left of center, to say the least, a far cry from the political conservatism so dominant in her home state. But her politics did not keep Keller off the state quarter. And her statue soon 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 that is because Keller is universally beloved for her courage over adversity, her championing of the underdog, her indomitable brilliance.

Some historians have a slightly different take. They agree she was one of the country’s most remarkable women, but they say Alabama history tends to freeze her at age 7 or gloss over her adult complexities.

Most people don’t know 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 Keller as a "crusading socialist" in his latest tome, " Alabama in the 20th Century."

"She was very politically liberal for her time, and that’s what makes her controversial in Alabama today," 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 moment many know

The state Legislature has approved the Keller statue, as did a congressional committee. With the governor of Alabama’s wife, Patsy Riley, promoting it and raising money, the project is moving swiftly and with little opposition.

The idea to replace Curry with Keller started at the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind. Then-President Joe Busta helped push through supporting legislation three years ago. A committee reportedly is close to signing a contract with an artist to make the statue.

The plan is to display the 7-year-old Helen 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 Busta, now vice president of development and alumni relations at the University of South Alabama.

Keller will be one of the few women displayed at the Capitol and the first person ever with disabilities. "That’s heavy stuff," Busta said. "She not only represents us well, but she represents all in our state and country and world with disabilities."...

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