When your eyes come open to the truth, there is no turning around.
by Anthony Witherspoon, #LwC2019
October 8, 2019
I am the Mayor of Magnolia, Mississippi, the county seat of Pike County and the town I grew up in. I also serve as an Executive Board Member for the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, as the President of the Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors, and as 1st Vice President of the Mississippi Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials. Although the state is still very conservative, we have been able to accomplish a great deal at the local level. There are seventy-six black mayors of majority-minority communities in the state, and we have been successful in passing multiple ban-the-box laws to blunt the effects of one of the worst collateral consequences of a criminal record: employment discrimination.
My other current priorities are working with the Mississippi Clergy for Prison Reform (CPR) on ending mandatory minimums and bringing about responsible sentencing reform, and re-enfranchising both people in prison and returning citizens. This year we were able to get a bill passed that will put additional dollars towards reentry services, increase parole eligibility for nonviolent offenses, and improve the way earned good time is calculated. Ironically, this bill had the support of our governor, a pro-Trump politician, who wanted to show his support for the federal First Step Act which the president supported. We still have a very long way to go when it comes to decarcerating our state prisons. Ten years ago Mississippi’s rate of incarceration was second only to Louisiana’s. Now we’re in the 3rd place, with a rate of 619 per 100,000 people.
Mississippi’s felony disenfranchisement law was created through an amendment to the state constitution in 1890. It took the vote away from people convicted of ten specific felonies, including murder and rape, but not manslaughter and aggravated assault. And since drug crimes didn’t really exist in 1890, convictions for drug offenses were also not included. When I was in prison working in the law library, I wrote to the State Attorney General with copies to the NAACP and the ACLU asking if, since I was convicted of manslaughter, it was safe for me to assume that I had not lost my right to vote. He wrote back that I was correct and told me to request an absentee ballot from the Circuit Clerk’s office, which I did. Eventually, we want to change the state constitution—a heavy lift–but for now we are registering people convicted of crimes other than those ten listed, which is maybe half of our people with criminal histories.
I come from a politically active family and from a community with a tradition of activism. Pike County was a hotbed of civil rights struggle during the 1960s and in 1973 my father became the first black elected official in the county. We were a family that voted. When I came out of prison in 2002 I absolutely knew I wanted to work for criminal justice reform. While I was inside I read the “Autobiography of Malcolm X.” It was the first book I ever read from cover to cover, and it put me on the path of social justice. I saw reflections of myself from being a hard-headed youth to finding myself inside the prison system and being exposed to some incredible people who helped me get on the right track. Like Malcolm, it was the Muslim community for me as well. When your eyes come open to the truth, there is no turning around.
Leading with Conviction has been very positive. To be around people who share your interests and convictions and passions and to glean from them how to approach things and how to duplicate the success they’ve had is awesome. Sometimes we’re so entrenched in our own work that we don’t hear about the victories going on in Kentucky or New Jersey or California. When you come to a convening and you hear those stories about how many lives have been effected, it gives you hope back home. If they can do it in Kentucky, we can do it in Mississippi. David is an exceptional coach. He has definitely made me look at leadership in a different light. I’m so proud of the leadership that our Executive Director, DeAnna Hoskins, brings to the formerly incarcerated community fight for justice, equity, and inclusion. I’ve been blessed to be a part of a network of incredible people.
Anthony Witherspoon has a Ph.D. Higher Education Administration from Jackson State University.