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Civil Rights Activist Desmond Meade Named a 2021 MacArthur Fellow!

By Christian Coleman

Desmond Meade
Photo credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Break out the confetti and the champagne! We’re having a double celebration for civil rights activist Desmond Meade! First, he has been named a 2021 MacArthur Fellow! Secondly, it’s the first-year anniversary of his book, Let My People Vote: My Battle to Restore the Rights of Returning Citizens!

The MacArthur Foundation selected him to join this year’s class of Fellows because of his work to restore voting rights to 1.4 million formerly incarcerated citizens in Florida and to remove barriers to their full participation in civic life. As president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), he led the successful fight for Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment that overturned a Jim Crow-era law aimed at keeping Black Americans from voting. Amendment 4 was passed in November 2018 with sixty-five percent of the vote and was hailed as the biggest win for voting rights in decades.

When he spoke with Lulu García-Navarro on NPR’s Weekend Edition about Republicans in Florida state legislature hobbling the initiative, he said, “It’s a clear affront against democracy, forcing an American citizen to choose between putting food on their table or voting. To me, that is not what democracy is all about. Access to the ballot box should be unencumbered and free. And any attempt to minimize that or to discourage that is an affront to democracy and what this country stands for.” They required anyone with a felony conviction to completely pay off their fines before casting any ballots. This is modern-day disenfranchisement at work.

You will notice that when Meade talks about formerly incarcerated citizens, he uses the term returning citizens. This is very intentional. When he talked to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, he said, “One of the things that impact policies, and no matter what policies you’re dealing with, is that narrative, right? How are you viewing people? And when you use the term ‘ex-felon,’ ‘convict,’ ‘ex-con,’ what you’re doing is you’re actually dehumanizing that individual while desensitizing the public towards that individual or the issue that they’re dealing with.” Language always matters because language shapes the narrative. As a returning citizen of Florida himself, Meade knows firsthand what that feels like.

Meade gives us his firsthand account in Let My People Vote, recounting his journey through prison and homelessness, to his activism, to the present as he fights for a fully enfranchised nation. He survived a tough childhood only to find himself with a felony conviction. Finding the strength to pull his life together, he graduated summa cum laude from college, graduated from law school, and married. But because of his conviction, he was not even allowed to sit for the bar exam in Florida. And when his wife ran for state office, he was filled with pride—but not permitted to vote for her. His journey takes us from his time in homeless shelters, to the exhilarating, joyful night when Amendment 4 passed.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, calls his story “an inspiration for all those who aim to build a radically more inclusive democracy.”

Just last year, Meade voted for president for the first time in thirty years. During his CBS 60 Minutes interview, he explained why it was such a watershed moment for him and what it meant in not only his personal history but also Black history. For him, it was sacred. He said, “When I went in there to vote, I didn’t just take my family in there with me. I brought all of my ancestors that were hung on trees, that were burned, that were bitten by dogs, that were sprayed by fire hoses. I brought their spirit with me in there. Our people went through that. We’ve been constantly fighting. Amendment 4 was nothing but a continuation of the Civil Rights fights. And we're still fighting.”

In 2019, he was recognized by Time as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. Today, he continues fighting against new restrictions placed on Florida voters that have been likened to Jim Crow laws.

Michelle Alexander calls Meade one of her personal heroes. He’s one of ours, too! Meade joins the ranks of such writers as Octavia E. Butler, Bob Moses, and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II as our MacArthur Fellow authors!

Congratulations, Desmond Meade!