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After 20 years in the military organizing troops, Gloria Hamilton is now using her military training to get more involved in causes in her community – including the upcoming election.
The retired Army veteran was one of 10 vets from around the Southeast who recently participated in a one-of-a-kind, five-day training retreat in Atlanta organized by the Veterans Organizing Institute, the training arm of Common Defense, a 501(c)4 grassroots group of progressive veterans.
This year’s midterm is an “important election,” VOI training director Janice Jamison told Atlanta Civic Circle. “There’s so much misinformation that’s happening right now.”
Some, like Hamilton, have already served as leaders. After leaving the Army, she worked as the commander of a women’s veterans organization in Savannah, bringing public awareness to problems women vets face such as sexism, military sexual trauma and homelessness.
Others are new to community organizing, said Jamison, a former Air Force intelligence operations analyst. Veterans carry clout in communities, she added, which helps in collaborative teamwork efforts, such as community activism and voter outreach.
Jamison said the veterans’ goal is to help voters make well-informed decisions. “The Veterans Organizing Institute equips veterans to be like grassroots organizers and community activists. We’re nonpartisan. We don’t say vote Republican or vote Democrat. Just get out there.”
For Hamilton, it was the trip to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and discussions about the current political climate with nationally-known Emory University historian and civil rights activist Carol Anderson that reinvigorated her activism.
“Having the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Anderson was definitely a call to action for me,” Hamilton, a retired Sergeant First Class, told Atlanta Civic Circle. “It really got me fired up on the need to really stay in that fight. I wanted to put some more skills behind my organizing efforts.”
“Regardless of your political affiliation, [people] respect the fact that we raise our right hand in honor of serving this country,” Jamison said. “That level of respect that people have for veterans is just enough to get our foot in the door to have a conversation.”
“We’ve been doing this way too long to still be playing at this game. Action is really needed,” added Hamilton, who lives in Evans, outside of Augusta. “We need more soldiers on the battlefield, even if you’re just bringing water to the troops. We need to be in this fight for humanity altogether, but definitely for voters’ rights – especially here in Georgia.
The Atlanta session is one of six in-person or Zoom retreats that the Veterans Organizing Institute is holding across the country this year. The training retreats started in Phoenix, Ariz., focusing on the climate issues there. The next ones will be in North Carolina, upstate New York, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
Atlanta participants learned about the history of organizing – including the many Black veterans who’ve been at the forefront of social and political change.
Harriet Tubman, who led as many as 300 enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad, served as a spy for the Union Army and then continued her political activism until her death in 1913. World War II veteran Medger Evers headed the Mississippi NAACP until his murder by white supremacists in 1963 when he was only 37.
Closer to home, Georgian Maceo Snipes was also a WW II veteran determined to exercise his right to vote. Only whites could vote in Georgia’s Democratic primaries until federal courts struck down the whites-only primary in 1946. Snipes was the only Black person in Taylor County to vote in the July 17, 1946 Democratic primary for governor – with former Gov. Eugene Talmadge, who campaigned on restoring the whites-only primary, running against the slightly more progressive James Carmichael.
A white, alleged Ku Klux Klan member fatally shot Snipes in the back the next day. His murder inspired Martin Luther King Jr., then a Morehouse College student, to write a letter to The Atlanta Constitution.
It concluded: “We want and are entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens: The right to earn a living at work for which we are fitted by training and ability; equal opportunities in education, health, recreation, and similar public services; the right to vote; equality before the law; some of the same courtesy and manners that we ourselves bring to all human relations.”
MILITARY-STYLE CIVIC ENGAGEMENT
Want to become more active in your community? Here are a few suggestions from Hamilton via the VOI mantra:
Unify. Instead of sending out different messages, community leaders unite to create one purpose and one message to circulate throughout the community.
Educate. Give the community a way and a reason to get involved.
Organize. Now that the message has been established, find out what the community really needs. “Get them fired up in a way that is going to extend past this particular election,” Hamilton said.
Activate. Don’t talk about it. Be about it. Let’s go.
Interested in participating in a Veteran Organizing Institute training session? Learn more here.