Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Intersections & Divergences of Disability & Race: From the 504 Sit-In to the Present

The twenty-six-day mass sit-in of April 1977 at the San Francisco headquarters of the federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) was a watershed moment in U.S. history.[1] Not only did this struggle over Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 directly lead to the promulgation of the first seminal piece of federal disability anti-discrimination legislation – without which the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 would not have been possible – but it also marked the advent of the modern disability justice movement. “Second to the signing of the [504] regulations the way we wanted them to be signed,” stated sit-in leader Kitty Cone on the occasion of the group’s declaration of victory on April 30, 1977, “the most important thing that came out of this is the public birth of a disabled movement.”

People all over the country, not just people shut in convalescence homes, but everyone in this country has learned that disabled people have a tremendous amount of strength, that we are capable of leading a struggle that has won major gains from the government. There’s a great deal of self-confidence, a great deal of pride, that we have given to ourselves and to disabled people all over the country. But we’ve also shown that if you wage a really effective struggle and you don’t give up, you can win a victory. (“Handicapped,” 1977, p. 6)

As one of the central organizers of the near-unprecedented feat of political strategy and collaboration that went into the victory of the struggle, Cone knew well the historic import of their achievement. With 120 disabled activists and supporters occupying the federal building inside, hundreds more regularly rallying in support on the outside, and crucial extensions of practical assistance forthcoming from sundry other social movements – including that of labor unions, LGBT activists, feminist groups, and racial justice organizations – the 504 victory was a paradigm of cross-movement, cross-cultural, and collaborative solidarity in the fight against social oppression. Of particular note in this vein, though reported and theorized to a lesser extent at the time, was the intersectional positioning of Blackness and disability as mutually reinforcing matrices of the struggle (Connelly, 2020; Erkulwater, 2018; Lukin, 2013; Schweik, 2011).

The Pre-History of 504 and the Politics of Solidarity

San Francisco in the 1970s was a seething ferment of radical, emancipatory unrest. Activism against the U.S. war on Vietnam was widespread on the campuses and amongst war veterans; disabled students at Berkeley College were agitating against structural impediments to their equality; gender and sexual liberation groups were challenging ingrained norms and roles; and the mass struggle for Black freedom – personified by the movements associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and others – was upending virtually all pre-existing relations of American society.

This was the crucible that shaped the personages, politics, and characteristics of the 504 movement. Linkages made, lessons learned, and leaderships forged amidst the general social upheaval preceding the 504 sit-in ultimately proved indispensable to its success. Figures like Cone, who through her experience as an organizer with the Socialist Workers Party, had spent many years involved in campaigns against racial segregation and had developed a sense of the utmost importance of building coalitions and networks of solidarity across social struggles (Dash, 2009; Landes, 2000).

Another key figure was Donald Galloway, one of the first Black people to occupy a leading position within the Berkeley Independent Living Center (ILC) movement in the mid-1970s. Galloway had long been pressuring the ILC to take a more active role in the politics of racism and the life of the Black community. Galloway was keenly aware of the fact that disability activism surrounding the ILC had been negligent toward the specific experience of Black disabled people in San Francisco and nearby Oakland. This negligence, Galloway argued, was to the detriment of both the ILC and the Black disabled population who could benefit from the resources, politics, and activist opportunities offered by the former (Erkulwater, 2018; Lukin, 2013; Pelka, 2012, pp. 218-222).

I didn’t see very many black people. I was the first black person that I knew of at the Center, hired on the staff full-time. I was the only black, and I started bringing black people into the center as drivers and attendants, and bringing in professional types.... There was just a handful of us that came in, but we came together and decided that we needed some input into this system....

    We were in a predominantly black community.... The movement was predominantly white. We needed to reach out to the black community in Oakland, get the Black Panthers involved, and any other group that would like to be involved. (Pelka, 2012, p. 220)

Although Galloway ultimately felt frustrated in his attempts to establish overt connections between the disability movement and the local Black population, his efforts were not without significant posterior effect. As Galloway later recalled:

There was a severely disabled man in the Black Panther Party[2] named Brad [Lomax], and Brad was our link to the Black Panthers. We would go and provide him with attendant care and transportation because we had a small transportation system going, a fleet of vans going out to the community. Ed [Roberts, the ILC director] made a decision that he wanted us to get more involved with the Black Panthers and with Oakland. So we would go to some of their meetings and explain our programs. Because Brad, one of their members, had a severe disability, we were quite accepted. (Pelka, 2012, pp. 221-222)

This connection with Bradley Lomax and the Black Panther Party (BPP) would prove to be eminently pivotal in the 504 struggle to come.

The Black Freedom Struggle and 504

Lomax had been a member of the BPP for nearly a decade by the time of the 504 sit-in. He had joined in the late 1960s in Washington where he was actively involved as an organizer. In the mid-1970s, Lomax moved to Oakland where he became acutely conscious of the parallel forms of oppression he experienced as a Black person as well a disabled person. Writing in a belated obituary for the New York Times’ “Overlooked” feature, Connelly (2020) recounts:

In Oakland, Lomax struggled to navigate its transit system. To board a bus, his brother, Glenn, would have to lift him out of his wheelchair, carry him up the steps and place him in a seat, then go back to retrieve the wheelchair. Such indignities galvanized Lomax to consider the plight of people with disabilities in a world that didn’t make it easy for them.

In short order, Lomax became an active participant in the Oakland BPP’s “serve the people” community organizing efforts (Schweik, 2011). This included, among other things, setting up free food and medical care clinics for the poor and working-class Black residents of the city. As part of this initiative, Lomax wanted to bring disability politics and services into the picture. He began collaborating with Ed Roberts and Donald Galloway in the attempt to integrate an ILC outreach center into the life of Oakland. The BPP in turn grew more aware and active around issues pertaining to the discrimination against disabled and elderly people in the realm of transportation and housing, which enjoyed increased coverage in the party newspaper, The Black Panther.

Later, when a coalition began to materialize around the plan to occupy the HEW building as an agitational pressure in support of Section 504, the BPP and Lomax were well acquainted with the nature of the struggle for disability justice and its immanence to the oppression of countless members of the Black community. As a result, Lomax, fellow BPP member and Lomax’s attendant Chuck Jackson, Dennis Billups, and other Black disabled activists both inside and outside of the BPP were centrally involved with the 504 struggle from the start (Schweik, 2011).

It is no exaggeration to say that the success of the 504 sit-in owes just as much to the involvement of the BPP and other Black activists as it does to movement leaders like Cone, Judy Heumann, and myriad other supporting social movements. At key junctures, the BPP mobilized to save the sit-in from collapsing under the weight of state repression and countermovement measures. At one point early in the occupation of the HEW building, federal police blocked off the entrances to any further incoming participants; they also prohibited the delivery of any food into the protesters. Corbett O’Toole, one of the HEW occupants, recalls:

One of the people with us was a black man who was part of the Black Panthers. He called up the Panthers and said, “I’m here in this demonstration.” ... They thought that anybody that challenged the federal government’s domain over their lives and were fighting for self-sufficiency and rights were cool people. And they had one guy in there and so they showed up.

    They were running a soup kitchen for their black community in East Oakland and they showed up every single night and brought us dinner. The FBI [guarding the building entrance] was like, “What the hell are you doing?” They answered, “Listen, we’re the Panthers. You want to starve these people out, fine, we’ll go tell the media that that’s what you’re doing, and we’ll show up with our guns to match your guns and we’ll talk about who’s going to talk to who about the food. Otherwise, just let us feed these people and we won’t give you any trouble” – and that’s basically what they did.

    I think the secret history of the 504 sit-in is that we never, ever would
have made it without the Black Panthers. Th Black Panthers fed us dinner – they fed 150 people of which only one was a Panther – every single night for the whole demonstration. We never would have survived without them. (Pelka, 2012, pp. 272-273)

Beyond providing crucial logistical assistance and a powerful boost of moral solidarity to the cause of the 504 protesters, the BPP helped to publicize, agitate, and solicit community support for the struggle. The Black Panther regularly featured news items on the progress of the struggle and explained the issues at stake to its readership. For instance, one issue of the newspaper carried an interview with Dennis Billups, “a young blind Black man from San Francisco ... one of the active and enthusiastic participants in the ongoing occupation of the HEW offices by handicapped and disabled people fighting for their civil and human rights” (Schweik, 2011). Billups’s interview reads like a stunning call to action:

To my brothers and sisters that are Black and that are handicapped: Get out there, we need you. Come here, we need you. Wherever you are, we need you. Get out of your bed, get into your wheelchair. Get out of your crutches, get into your canes. If you can't walk, call somebody, talk to somebody over the telephone; if you can't talk, write; if you can't write use sign language .... We need to do all we can. We need to show the government that we can have more force than they can ever deal with ... (Schweik, 2011)

After the signing of the 504 regulations and the declaration of victory by the HEW protesters, The Black Panther ran a special issue devoted to the struggle, including interviews, analysis, and a primer on the legal details of “504: Civil Rights for the Disabled” (“Handicapped,” 1977). The front-page headline screamed in capital letters, “HANDICAPPED WIN DEMANDS – END H.E.W. OCCUPATION.” The lead article, notwithstanding the relative unfamiliarity with a disability-positive framework betrayed by its word choice, presented a touching assessment of the significance of the struggle itself, noting that in addition to the victory that was the actual signing of the 504 regulations by the U.S. Secretary of the HEW, there was also

another victory, a triumph of the human will, actually, achieved here in the Bay Area. It is the type of victory that can’t be pinpointed by any one single act ... Its expression came in many ways; for instance ... when a young Black woman came up to Brad Lomax, a Black Panther Party member victimized by multiple sclerosis ... and embracing him in his wheelchair, remarked, “Thank you for setting an example for all of us;”

    In a very real sense, ending the HEW occupation was like breaking up a family – a farewell to the tightly knit, caring, human community the disabled demonstrators and their aides formed among themselves....

    Over and over the significant themes were repeated at the rally – “human rights,” “equal access,” “and end to segregation,” “finally feeling like a human being” – all summed up by Kitty Cone when she simply yelled into the microphone the one thought behind all the smiling emotions, “WE WON, WE WON, WE WON!” (“Handicapped,” 1977, p. 6)

Theorizing Blackness and Disability

The 504 struggle epitomized the possibilities of a reified politics of solidarity between the struggles for disability and racial justice. The theoretical implications embodied by the history of 504 continue to feature prominently in the ideations of scholars and activists concerned with the overlapping, intersecting, and underappreciated epistemologies of a disability Black studies (Artiles, 2013; Campbell, 2008; Erevelles & Minear, 2013; Erkulwater, 2018; Liasidou, 2014; Mollow, 2017; Schweik, 2011).

Building on the novel work of KimberlĂ© Crenshaw in advancing the theory of intersectional forms of oppression, Erevelles and Minear (2013) have written about the contemporary relevance of a theoretical model for understanding the unique phenomenology of simultaneously embodied Blackness and disability. In particular, Erevelles and Minear reference the fact that throughout the nation’s public schools, Black children tend to be disproportionately affixed with medicalized disability diagnoses and consequently overrepresented within special education programs.

This theme also figures in the writings of Artiles (2013) and Liasidou (2014). Artiles considers the complicated nature of the discourse surrounding the “racialization of disabilities” as demonstrated by the foregoing trend, in which the “double bind” of inherited racial oppression and acquired disability oppression “further compounds the structural disadvantages that each group has historically endured” (2013, pp. 329, 330). Meanwhile, Liasidou argues that a convergence of Critical Race Theory and Disability Studies enables a coherent framework for understanding such a “double bind” (or triple, quadruple, etc.). Referencing Guillaume (2011), Liasidou argues that “the racial and disabled identity of a person cannot be disentangled, precisely because the experience of disability and racism cannot be addressed separately.... [This] analysis focuses on criticizing antidiscrimination legislation and education policies that address separately issues of disability and racism while ignoring the ways in which certain individuals might experience intersectional forms of unequal and discriminatory treatment” (as cited in Liasidou, 2014, p. 732).

The efficacy of a theory and praxis informed by a model of racial-disablist oppression is in its ability to elucidate the real lived experiences and encounters of discrimination of people who are both Black and disabled. That is to say, in the realms of employment, education, and civil society, there are instances in which a person may face oppression exclusively because they are both Black and disabled. Imagine a person applying for a job with an employer who harbors the prevailing social prejudices against Black people and disabled people. Perhaps if the person was Black but not disabled, they may fall just short of the discriminatory threshold of the employer and be offered the position. Likewise if the person was disabled but White. However, the cumulative prejudices that the employer holds towards Black people and, separately, towards disabled people, may be sufficient to surpass the discriminatory threshold when embodied in a job applicant who is both Black and disabled. Consequently, the person who has suffered the discrimination in this instance is neither the victim of racial discrimination, as such, or disability discrimination, as such, but rather a uniquely racial-disablist discrimination. In other words, they were not denied the job simply because they are Black or simply because they are disabled; rather, they were denied the job because they are both Black and disabled.

This hearkens to some of the thoughts discussed by Johnnie Lacy, a Black disabled woman who was inspired into political activism by the events of the 504 sit-in. Lacy, who held a leading position within the California ILC movement in the 1980s, speaks of first beginning to self-consciously integrate her various identities into a multiple whole in the context of the 504 milieu:

I believe that African Americans see [people with] disabilities in the same way that everybody else sees us—worthless, mindless—without realizing that this is the same attitude held by others toward African Americans. This belief in effect cancels out the black identity they share with a disabled black person, both socially and culturally, because the disability experience is not viewed in the same context as if one were only black, and not disabled. Because of this myopic view, I as a black disabled person could not share in the intellectual dialogue viewed as exclusive to black folk. In other words, I could be one or the other but not both....

    One of the things that I’ve learned is that I cannot allow myself to fall into the trap of being identified by others, that I have to have a sense of my own personal identity. And that sense is very much tied into who I am as a woman of color and as a disabled person, and I try not to distinguish between the three identities anymore. (Pelka, 2012, pp. 352-353)

Conclusion and Further Areas of Study

There is much to learn from the experience of the 504 struggle, both theoretical and practical. The analytical implications and potential areas of study of a racial-disablist model of oppression are myriad. Mollow (2017) provides an urgent and contemporary example of this in their discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement and the instances of police violence for which it has sought redress. Mollow notes that in the cases of Eric Garner, Barbara Dawson, and Tamir Rice (to name a few), all of whom were killed by police, their deaths were painted by police apologists as a consequence of, variously, their obesity, their asthma, or their heart condition. As one cop wrote in an online forum apropos of Garner’s death, “Let’s stop making excuses for criminal behavior because they are black. This guy would have died going up a flight of stairs. His diet killed him” (quoted in Perry, 2014, as cited in Mollow, 2017, p. 107). Here we see a perfect illustration of how racism and disablism are brought together in order to articulate a narrative that attempts to blame the victim for their own oppression at the hands of an armed agent of state repression.

Despite the advent of our putatively post-racial era in the aftermath of the Obama presidency, and a post-disability discrimination era in the aftermath of the ADA, the scourges of racism and disability oppression persist; as does the scourge of racialized-disability oppression. The capacity of new and emergent social struggles to affect the type of fundamental, structural change necessary to truly win justice in twenty-first century America will henceforth depend upon the centering and cultivating of an intersectional framework as diverse, varied, and multiple as really-existing society and the oppressions it stubbornly persists in reproducing.


Artiles, A. (2013). Untangling the racialization of disabilities: An intersectionality critique across disability models. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 10(2), 329-347. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1742058X13000271

Campbell, F. A. K. (2008). Exploring internalized ableism using critical race theory. Disability & Society23(2), 151-162. https://doi-org.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/10.1080/09687590701841190

Connelly, E. A. J. (2020, July 8). Overlooked no more: Brad Lomax, a bridge between civil rights movements. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/08/obituaries/brad-lomax-overlooked.html

Dash, L. (2009, Sept. 24). Interview with Kitty Cone [Interview]. Leon Dash Papers, 1923-87; University of Illinois Archives. https://archives.library.illinois.edu/e-records/index.php?dir=University%20Archives/1303023/CD6_KittyCone_9-24-2009

Erevelles, N., & Minear, A. (2013). Unspeakable offenses: Untangling race and disability in discourses of intersectionality. In L.J. Davis (Ed.), The disability studies reader [eBook edition]. (4th ed.). Routledge.

Erkulwater, J. L. (2018). How the nation’s largest minority became white: Race politics and the disability rights movement, 1970–1980. Journal of Policy History 30(3), 367-399. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/698511

Handicapped win demands – End H.E.W. Occupation. (1977, May 7). The Black Panther, 1, 6. Retrieved December 12, 2020, from http://www.disabilityhistory.org/BlackPantherParty_504.html

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Liasidou, A. (2014) The cross-fertilization of critical race theory and Disability Studies: Points of convergence/ divergence and some education policy implications, Disability & Society, 29:5, 724-737, DOI: 10.1080/09687599.2013.844104

Livingstone, J. (2020, July 24). What the Americans with Disabilities Act has to teach today’s protesters. The New Republic. https://newrepublic.com/article/158618/americans-disabilities-act-teach-todays-protesters

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[1] The 504 sit-in remains, to date, the longest sit-in ever to take place at a federal building (Livingstone, 2020).

[2] The Black Panther Party was a revolutionary, socialist, Black liberation organization that emerged and grew rapidly throughout the 1970s.

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