A Cowboy Hat and the Push to Register Voters
by Brad Wong. This article originally appeared on Equal Voice News.
It’s the afternoon in the Atlanta area and Charles “Chuck” Ware is fielding questions by phone about the importance of voting in Election 2016. At the same time, the grassroots advocate is speaking with someone nearby.
“Have him fill it out. We’ll take it in,” Ware, 86, says to a mom who picked up a voter registration form for her college-age son.
Election 2016, no doubt, will bring significant political change, as the nation chooses between Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her Republican counterpart Donald Trump on Nov. 8.
For Ware – an octogenarian community organizer who goes by “Uncle Chuck,” sports a white cowboy hat and works with fellow Georgia STAND-UP members – the race for the White House is just part of the picture. His main focus is to engage citizens in the Atlanta area and encourage them to vote for the rest of their lives.
“People can vote for whoever they want. I don’t like people to criticize any political party and not be registered,” Ware, who lives in suburban Clayton County, says. “Too many people have died for you not to register.”
He reminds people skeptical of casting ballots about the fight for civil rights, including the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church, Nelson Mandela and that some races have been settled by a handful of votes.
Until the state’s Oct. 11 voter registration deadline, he’ll work up to 10 hours a day with other Georgia STAND-UP members at tables around Clayton County. They’ll talk about how voting is an extension of voice.
So, how did this Black man known for wearing a white cowboy hat end up engaging strangers about democracy? How did he and other grassroots advocates register more than 7,000 voters in the Atlanta metropolitan area in recent years?
Ware pauses when asked to describe himself. “Years ago, I was a union official with the Teamsters. You know Jimmy Hoffa?” he says, referring to the late labor leader.
“My main goal back then was to help people who couldn’t help themselves.”
Ware’s introduction to helping others, not for money but to learn, came even earlier, as a boy in East Chicago, Indiana. His mom fixed the hair of neighborhood seniors for free. His job: Take them shopping and listen.
“That’s where I got my blessing from, from my mom,” he says. “She said, ‘God has a place in life for you.’”
Years later he worked with the Teamsters in Chicago, and he learned another lesson: Always go forward in life. Along the way, especially in the 1980s, he kept religion in mind.
“God gives you a challenge,” he says. “He gives you material to work with.”
By 1987, he had moved to the Atlanta region, where the first Black mayor of a big city in the South, Maynard Jackson, was in office. Deborah Scott, who became Georgia STAND-UP’s executive director, worked on voter operations for the campaign.
She recalls someone introducing Ware to her with this comment: “We don’t have enough for him to do.”
His time with the Teamsters, his sincerity and his speaking style, which is direct and occasionally abrupt, proved to be a boon at voter registration tables.
“The first thing I say: ‘Did you vote?’ I say: ‘Take pride in yourself. Get out there and register and vote.’”
His goal is to steer the conversation toward community participation.
“I tell people, ‘No man is an island. People need to work together.’”
Ware, who has won civic awards, has lived through the age of polio and the civil rights era of the 1960s, and those experiences have stayed with him. Younger people, Scott says, often stop and listen to him.
“He is authentic,” she says. “He spans the divide between generations.”
He also meets people, literally, where they are. At one store, he stood by the shopping carts, a strategy, he says, that resulted in registering about 1,600 voters in August and September.
Among the people he has registered include low-income moms, immigrants who are citizens but jobless and former felons who wouldn’t have voted had he not asked. The votes by the former felons brought tears to his eyes: “If I don’t make a difference, then I haven’t done anything.”
And his cowboy hat?
“It’s my trademark,” he says. “God told me that you’ll be recognized by what you wear. People come up and say, ‘Where’s the guy in the cowboy hat?’”
Underneath that cowboy hat is a determination to work with people of all backgrounds and generations to make Atlanta’s neighborhoods and suburbs better.
“Be honest with yourself, and God will take care of you. He will give you longevity,” Ware says. “Share your knowledge. Knowledge is power.”
Brad Wong is news editor for Equal Voice News.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.