Sherman Gillums, Paralyzed Veterans of America's Associate Executive Director of Veterans Benefits
In the midst of February, African American History Month is a reminder of America’s journey toward a more inclusive and diverse society. Non-discrimination has been an American ideal rooted in the time of the establishment of the United States.
The pilgrims came to the New World in search of religious liberty and freedom from persecution. The 20th century movements for change focused public attention on causes as diverse as women’s suffrage and civil rights for people of color.
Encouraged by these developments, the disability rights movement was born. In the 1960s this movement brought together people with a wide array of disabilities to fight for and secure their rights. Paralyzed Veterans of America (Paralyzed Veterans) has used its leadership within the civil rights movements to continue the effort to advance rights and end discrimination.
“The defining elements for Paralyzed Veterans are that you need to be a veteran and have a spinal injury. These requirements go across races,” said Associate Executive Director Government Relations, Doug Vollmer. “We have been integrated from the get-go.”
At the 1947 Convention in Richmond, VA, Paralyzed Veterans held a banquet for members at the John Marshall Hotel. This hotel was still segregated and did not welcome African American members. “Paralyzed Veterans told them, ‘It’s all or nothing,’ ” said Vollmer.
With the support of the wire services, UPI and AP, and other media sources, Paralyzed Veterans gained support for an integrated banquet. This became the first time that the John Marshall Hotel served African Americans because of the determination of Paralyzed Veterans.
“Paralyzed Veterans has been on the right side of history for some time,” said Sherman Gillums, who is African American.
For over twenty years, Paralyzed Veterans has worked with and been a member of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (The Leadership Conference). “We found ourselves in the same boat as other civil rights organizations,” Vollmer said. This organization consists of more than 200 American groups that strive for “a more open and just society” as stated by The Leadership Conference.
Gillums believes that things have changed for African Americans and are continuing to change as we advance toward a society free from discrimination and inequality. “Because African Americans are ascending to higher ranks and education levels in the military, they are just as qualified as their peers in the civilian sector.”
“Paralysis does not respect demographic boundaries,” he added. “Two important aspects eclipse our differences and unite us: the wheelchair and our common quest to overcome the limitations of spinal cord injury and disease.”
Learn more about Paralyzed Veterans of America
Kulsoom Jafri is a political communications major at The George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.