#SheDidThat

September 14, 1964: Helen Keller Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On September 14, 1964, Helen Keller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Keller with the esteemed medal, the highest civil honor for peacetime service. She was a leading humanitarian who overcame her own adversity of deafness and blindness only to dedicate her life to helping others.

Born on June 27, 1880 in a small Alabama town, Keller contracted a fever at 19 months old that left her deaf and blind. Her parents famously took seven-year-old Keller to see Alexander Graham Bell who suggested that they hire a governess to help her. They hired Anne Mansfield Sullivan who helped Helen learn to read and write. Keller moved on to receive a formal education and graduated Cum Laude in 1904 from Radcliffe College (Harvard College’s sister school) as the first deaf-blind person. After graduation, she announced that she planned to dedicate her life in finding a cure for blindness. Keller said, “Many persons have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose,” and she truly lived according to this view.

Keller traveled to 39 countries on five continents between 1939 and 1957  to discuss the plight of the blind. She also wrote 14 books and countless articles to raise awareness. Apart from her campaign to aid the deaf-blind, Keller held some extremely radical and political views for her day. She was a member of the Socialist Party and an outspoken promoter of women’s suffrage, birth control, civil rights, and the labor union movement. She co-founded the ACLU in 1920 to support these causes.

Keller died at age 87, four years after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In her lifetime, Keller met every sitting President from Calvin Coolidge to John F. Kennedy. Keller is the quintessential symbol of triumph over adversity as a leader in raising awareness for those who could not always advocate for themselves.

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