Updated: Feb 20
The 1950s and 1960s saw hard earned gains in civil rights legislation. Despite enormous opposition from Deep South states, civil rights leaders found crucial support from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, was the lead author of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was also an advocate for disability rights.
Taking cues from the civil rights movement, disability rights activists started to challenge conventional thinking that those with disabilities could not make meaningful contributions. The independent living movement arose in Berkeley, California to create a community proving that the disabled could gain independence when provided with certain accommodations. Growing coalitions pushed for passage of the Architectural Barriers Act in 1968, which required federally constructed buildings to be accessible to people with physical disabilities. The Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California successfully lobbied for breaks in curbs that would allow wheelchair users easier passage across streets. Finally, an antiquated 1920s disability law received an overdue update with the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Humphrey and some legislative aides inserted 35 essential words into Section 504 of the Act: “no otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall solely on the basis of his handicap, be excluded from the participation, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” It was language Humphrey had originally proposed including in the Civil Rights Act but had been persuaded to drop before its final draft.
The passage of the Act was a watershed moment for the disability rights movement. The only problem was that in order for Section 504 to be enforced, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) needed to sign off on federal guidelines that outlined the specifics of how the law needed to be implemented. Under the Nixon and Ford administrations, HEW “studied” the law but intentionally delayed signoff due to corporate and school concerns that implementation would be prohibitively expensive. A federal lawsuit resulted in a 1976 court order for HEW to issue regulations “without further delay.” But the court didn’t set any deadline for action. In 1976, Jimmy Carter campaigned on a promise to finally implement Section 504 but his HEW Secretary, Joseph Califano, Jr. also chose to “study” the law. Disability activists reached their boiling point.
One such activist was Brad Lomax. Lomax had helped form the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Black Panthers in 1969. Only nineteen, he had just been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and within a few years, found himself confined to a wheelchair. In 1973, he moved to the San Francisco area and reached out to the Center for Independent Living to explore the possibility of creating a second center in Oakland, with the help of the Black Panthers. When Lomax used public transportation, he needed to travel with his brother, who would lift Lomax from his wheelchair and carry him onto a public bus. The brother would then go back to the curb, fold up the heavy wheelchair, and hoist it onto the bus next to Lomax. The pair would reverse the process when they arrived at their destination. The humiliation of having to be so dependent, in front of strangers, angered Lomax in the same way his experiences with racial discrimination had. By 1977, he was ready to make noise.
Joyce Ardell Jackson was also living in the Bay Area in 1977, working for the Center for Independent Living. Jackson had developed juvenile arthritis when she was twelve and underwent more than fifty operations in her lifetime. Like Lomax, she was in her late twenties and had endured a lifetime of injustice, both as a black woman and as a person with a disabled body.
After President Carter took office and nothing changed at HEW, disability rights activists learned that opposition interests were persuading Secretary Califano to make changes to Section 504 regulations. These changes would weaken the law. Worse yet, no one from the disability rights movement had a seat at Califano’s table to protect their interests. Incensed, activist Judy Heumann led one hundred fifty disabled demonstrators and their supporters into HEW’s San Francisco office in early April, 1977. There they sat, refusing to leave until Carter forced Califano to issue regulations that upheld the rights the law promised.
Other sit-ins had been held before and after the passage of Section 504, but this one was different. Protesters flooded HEW offices in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, and Seattle. Three hundred protesters crowded into the halls and office of Califano’s Washington, D.C. office, but were forced to vacate after only twenty-eight hours. Officials in the other cities also forced protesters to disband or waited them out until hunger and physical needs forced them to leave of their own accord. But the protesters in San Francisco were about to change history.
Although the Black Panthers supported community outreach and investment, disability rights were not foremost on their agenda. However, Brad Lomax had spent years forging relationships within the Black Panthers and he was one of their own. A sit-in with people with disabilities was far more complex than a “typical” protest. In buildings not yet remodeled for accessibility, getting in and out of the building required the help of many able-bodied supporters. Lomax persuaded the Black Panthers to join a half dozen other groups to provide support, meals, mattresses and blankets to the protesters. This thwarted the strategies used by officials in other cities and enabled the sit-in to last twenty-six days.
Brad Lomax, Joyce Jackson, Judy Heumann and hundreds of others attended to each other’s needs. They helped one another with medications, their aides turned some people in the middle of the night so they didn’t develop bed sores, they read to the blind and helped quadriplegics brush their teeth. The protesters each assumed responsibilities for their new community, coordinating food delivery, safety, clean-up, entertainment, media communications and fund raising. They developed strong bonds and became educated about disabilities beyond their own. The Panthers defied FBI attempts to bar them from the building and publically supported the protest, declaring, "We support you because you're asking America to change, to treat you like human beings, like you belong," one explained, "We always support people fighting for their rights." Although other groups also provided essential help, it was the Panthers’ experience standing up to authority that proved pivotal. Reflecting on the significance of the contributions, one participant acknowledged that without the participation of Brad Lomax, the Panthers wouldn’t have provided meals and without the meals, the sit-in would have failed.
Media attention grew and two local U.S. Representatives came to the HEW office to listen to the protesters’ concerns. Officials worried about the optics of forcibly removing handicapped protesters who were unable to walk on their own. A HEW official visiting from Washington indicated that Califano was considering changes to Section 504 that would no longer require hospitals or schools to provide handicap ramps and that special schools might be created to avoid the mainstreaming of disabled students. The phrase “separate but equal” was used.
The protesters’ resolve hardened and they set out to create national news coverage. They selected twenty-five representatives to travel to Washington, where they would join other disability rights groups to pressure their state representatives and the Carter administration. Brad Lomax and Joyce Jackson were among those twenty-five. At the time, transportation for people with disabilities was extraordinarily difficult. No laws were in place to require accessibility. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) wouldn’t become law until 1990. To help those in wheelchairs, including Lomax, get to Washington, the Black Panthers rented a U-Haul with a cargo lift and drove them across the country in a dark, unheated, unventilated moving truck.
After meeting with representatives and staging rallies, public pressure worked its magic. On April 28, 1977, Joseph Califano, Jr. signed Section 504 regulations banning discrimination against 35 million disabled citizens and 11.5 million drug and alcohol addicts. The signed regulations contain no alterations and implemented the law with its original language – a complete victory for the protesters.
Brad Lomax continued his work with the Black Panthers for several more years until his life was cut short at thirty-three from complications from his multiple sclerosis. Joyce Ardell Jackson would go on to serve three terms on the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, travelling across the country to educate others about Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. She later worked as a consultant to non-profits and in the private sector. Due to her own battle with arthritis, she was forced to retire in her late forties. She died in 2013 at the age of sixty-six. But both made the most of their time and together, they left a legacy that has impacted millions of lives for the better.
To learn more about the 504 sit-in, Brad Lomax and Joyce Ardell Jackson, we recommend