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Fight to Vote: Community activist in Miss. banned from voting for life, along with some 200,000 fellow citizens

When Terun Moore’s wife voted in Mississippi’s U.S. Senate special election in November 2018, he went with her to the polls.

The polling place in Jackson, Mississippi, was a middle school amphitheater. Inside, Terun encountered some older election volunteers and voters. As his wife considered her ballot and Terun stood by, the elders asked him: Why don’t you want to vote?

It wasn’t that the election didn’t matter to Terun, 40, a native of Jackson. In fact, he thought Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s statement weeks before the election about a “public hanging” was disqualifying. To him, it seemed too few voters cared about the remark. Meanwhile, the Black Democratic candidate, former Congressman Mike Espy, had reasonable odds of winning the statewide race, a rarity in Mississippi and in the South.

“I ain’t able to vote,” Terun told the elders.

Along with an estimated 200,000 other Mississippians, Terun is permanently stripped of his voting rights because he was convicted as a juvenile of murder. Though he got a second chance when he was released in 2017 after nearly two decades in prison, and he’s now using that chance to upend the cycle of violence and incarceration in his beloved Jackson, Terun faces a daunting path to recover his right to vote.

“Having a convict stripe on your back here is hard,” Terun said. “When you come home, it’s like a stripe you always gotta wear. And if you don’t have the resources or the connections when you come home, you can be more than just disenfranchised from voting, you can be disenfranchised from society, too.”

At age 17, Terun was convicted of murder for killing a man during a robbery. “I felt like I was loyal to a crew of people,” he said. Terun joined a street gang at age 12 for protection after an incident in which older teenagers stole from him, according to a 2019 story in the Jackson Free Press. “So I did it, and I got locked up. I fought it and went to trial and I got life without.”

The charge led to social isolation for Terun, as many of the people in his life began to treat him differently.

“My grandma was the only one in my life who didn't change on me after the charge,” he said. “It was a blessing.” The two corresponded during Terun’s long prison term, during which he thought he would never be released.

But then came the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama. Life without parole sentences for minors, the court ruled, were unconstitutional.

It took five more years for Terun to be released. Before that happened, his grandmother died.

“I didn’t get to be back home with her,” he said. “But I said I was going to be the type of person she wanted me to be.”

Once released, Terun got right to work. He co-founded a grassroots organizing group called People’s Advocacy Institute (PAI). He began speaking to groups of young people and telling his story.

“Before we knew it, PAI had a good name in the community,” he said.

Nowadays, Terun’s activism for his community is extensive. He’s helping to build a “violence interruption” program, bringing a successful model deployed in places like Baltimore and New York City to Jackson. He says he and his partners are “hitting the streets, trying to find our people in their neighborhoods and community who can interrupt violence.”

He realizes that “you can’t go to a community that you aren’t from and talk to young people who don’t know you,” so he and his partners are also working on building a network of “credible messengers” to deter others from crime. He hosts a livestream focused on these projects, and more, each Monday night on Facebook. He has organized COVID-19 care packages. And in response to a recent spate of violence in Jackson, at the time of the interview for this report, he said he was organizing a peace rally.

And yet Terun cannot vote.

“At the end of the day I feel like all people should vote. If you’re an American citizen or pay taxes, you should be able to vote. You tax my checks that I go and work for, but you’re saying I can’t choose who leads me, who our leaders are in the community and the country?”

Terun thinks felony disenfranchisement must be re-evaluated in Mississippi, as it has been in places like Florida and Alabama. The system was “set [up] by some racist people,” he said.

Indeed, the history of Mississippi’s felony disenfranchisement scheme stretches back to the passage of the state’s 1890 constitution. Along with poll taxes and literacy tests, felony disenfranchisement had the effect desired by white Mississippi legislators of the era: It dramatically reduced Black voting power.

Today, in order to get their voting rights back, people convicted of one of the disqualifying crimes must have a “Bill of Suffrage” passed through both houses of the Mississippi Legislature with supermajorities in support of the bill. In practice, only a handful of the tens of thousands of disenfranchised Mississippians get their rights back this way.

“Just 335 of 166,494 persons who completed their sentence had their rights restored [with Bills of Suffrage] from 2000 to 2015,” reads a 2016 report on Mississippi’s disenfranchisement law by The Sentencing Project.

In 2018, the SPLC filed suit against Mississippi, to overturn the lifetime voting ban on people who have been convicted of certain felonies.

Terun faces extra hurdles, however. On parole for life, his sentence is – and will remain – unfinished. What’s more, many Americans still believe voting rights should not be restored to people convicted of murder and other violent crimes, according to a 2018 nationwide poll.

Terun could still pin his hopes to vote one day on a pardon or executive action from the governor – two other uncommon ways Mississippians can have their voting rights restored. Or perhaps the judge overseeing Terun’s case could resentence him. But even if the latter happened, he would still face the onerous and archaic Bill of Suffrage process in the Legislature.

Meanwhile, he’s still trying to rebuild his life. On a recent Monday night Facebook live show co-hosted by his community organizing partner, Terun mentioned the struggle: “I’m fighting hard every day to get my life back.”

In other words, he faces a long struggle and tough odds. Still, Terun does what he can: He encourages others to vote, and his main projects in Jackson aim to divert people from crime in the first place. That may save some of them from collateral consequences like felony disenfranchisement.

For him, this work is essential.

“One of the O.G. civil rights leaders, he was saying that for Black people, that’s the only time you’re really an American citizen, on voting day,” he said. “That’s the only day you’re really a true citizen.”

Read more profiles from the Fight to Vote series here.

Photo by AP/Rogelio V. Solis