Black History Month: NBDC Tribute to Rev. Calvin Peterson

Congratulations to Disabled in Action on your 51st Anniversary.  Thank you to all the volunteers who are with us today and those who have gone on before. It is your strength in the belief of disabled people, Black people and families that has sustained the work of DIA.

DIA has been led consecutively for 51 years by the Rev. Calvin Peterson. Many know of his work, few of the sorrow of rejection he has endured for 51 years and yet with the strength in God he pushed on. Rev. Peterson was born to serve because when we love we want to serve. He was given the task of freeing his people, Black disabled people from the constraints of exclusion and oppression. He continues to contribute to the good purposes of those he loves. The greatest hope of those who have been chosen to serve is that they may be found trustworthy; they can imagine no greater joy than to do what serves and pleases others.  This is who the Reverend Calvin Peterson is.

Beyond his love and faith, I want to talk about Rev. Peterson as a leader in the disability community. Because he had the audacity to be one of the first to begin discussions of race and disability, he endured rejection and exclusion of his work.  Although today, 50 years later, there are black disabled leaders, for the most part they are handpicked and defined by the dominant disability community. This exclusion continues today with black disabled community leaders who work, talk, and preach black disability issues.  Although this exclusion stopped the greater percentage of black community organizations it did not deter Rev. Peterson, and this is why DIA is still here today!

Corbett O’Toole, a disability rights elder wrote in her book Fading Scars, “If you only looked at photographs of the disability rights movement, you would believe that we were a multi-racial community.  But while people of all races participated in the hard work of fighting for disability rights, the rewards of that work – employment opportunities, leadership, speaking opportunities, have not been shared equally.  One needs only to glance in a very cursory way at the statistics of who is employed in disability rights organizations.  They are by in large White people.  The presence of disabled people of color particularly in leadership positions continues to be abysmally small.  If you follow even a few historical threads, the struggles of disabled people of color have been marked with incredible resistance from White disabled people and disability organizations.”

Rev. Peterson continued in spite of longstanding resentment to discredit his work and his beliefs.  He not only experienced this from the greater disability community he experienced from the civil rights leaders in his home city.  It is Rev. Peterson’s work that the next generation of black disabled leaders, like Leroy Moore states “as the disability rights movement of the 70’s moved from awareness to civil rights, to independent living, to disability studies and arts and culture in dominant communities, I noticed the greater black community did not make any changes toward disability.”

Mr. Moore’s generation the first generation that came after Rev. Peterson, benefitted from the Reverend’s work. The next generation, today’s generation, although there are many in number, most of the work is concentrated in articles and lectures. We are now in the third generation and there are few if any, who like Rev. Peterson who go in the community to educate, challenge, and pray with the greater black community.

There is no greater commitment to the people Rev. Peterson loves when he states ““the views of the black church towards black disabled people do not coincide with God’s law, the law that compels us to love one another. My disability activism and professional work as an ordained minister, revealed how the black church is a spiritually segregated institution. My commitment is to continue to move forward with change in the black community until disability segregation is eradicated in our black churches.”

Rev. Peterson challenges us to take the risk of personal discomfort to illuminate exclusion and segregation of black disabled people in both the dominant disability community but most importantly in our own community.

It is Rev. Peterson’s faith and love of God that takes him directly to the doorstep of the black church.  We all know since slavery the black church has been the point of entry for all social, political, and healing of the black community.  It is where we pray, we protest, we organize, we laugh, we love, and we heal.  Rev. Peterson was the first black disabled man to combine his faith with his significant disability to become an ordained minister.  This took courage, audacity, grit and love.  The love of God, the love of self and the love of his mother, taught him as his book proclaims, “All things are possible.”

I congratulate, honor and love Rev. Calvin Peterson and will always lift him, and work to ensure he is included in disability history.  I ask each one who hears me today join me in spreading the word.


Thank you,

Jane Dunhamn, Director
National Black Disability Coalition