The guys on death row were really nice, Hannah Williams recalls.
“They’re funny — considering the circumstances. It was cool,” said Williams, who grew up helping her mother, a prominent Mississippi civil-rights attorney, field phone calls and read letters from incarcerated clients at Parchman, the notorious state prison that was modeled after a plantation.
“I’d been trying so hard to not make our paths collide and [make] people not know that I’m her daughter. But the more I get into the weeds of this work, the more I’m like, I know these people because they watched me grow up.”
Today, Williams, 28, works for Mississippi Votes, a millennial-led nonprofit headquartered in the state capital, Jackson, where she leads the organization’s criminal justice and voting rights work.
Mississippi, like many states, bars people from voting after they are convicted of certain crimes, a process known as disenfranchisement. What separates Mississippi, however, is both confusion about the crimes that result in disenfranchisement as well as the convoluted process a person has to go through to get their votes back.
Under state law, there are 22 crimes — which are not necessarily felonies — that a person can be convicted of that result in losing their voting rights. Court challenges have argued that the white framers of the state constitution originally included crimes that African Americans were more likely than whites to commit, such as bigamy and timber larceny. The only ways to regain one’s voting rights are through a governor’s pardon or an act of the Legislature known as a suffrage bill, which are rare.
Another challenge for advocates like Williams is that many people assume that folks automatically lose their right to vote when arrested and jailed for any felony. In fact, people in jail awaiting trial can vote using an absentee ballot as long as they haven’t been convicted of one of the 22 disenfranchising crimes.
It’s eye-opening, she said, how little people know about laws regarding incarcerated people voting, including local sheriffs and jail staff and even some lawmakers. In instances where she encounters pushback, a simple meeting request can go a long way: “Let us do what we need to do, you know? Let us work so we don’t have to write a letter. Work with us so we can work with you,” she explains.
A Jackson native, Williams attended Jackson State University, where she studied history. After spending some time in Atlanta working in film and modeling, she returned to Mississippi in 2019. Eventually, she joined her longtime friend, Mississippi Votes’ executive director Arekia Bennett, as the organization’s operations manager and has held a number of roles since.
She said it was an easy transition. In addition to her experiences working alongside her mom, Williams had long held an interest in politics and policy work, once asking a question of presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren at a town hall.
Despite the enormity of the challenge facing Mississippi voting-rights advocates, Williams is encouraged about conversations about reforming rights restoration now happening in the Legislature and is hopeful that she’ll see progress in this lifetime.
“Mississippi has never stopped moving forward, even it’s just itty bitty baby steps,” she said.
Also for Williams, who is completing a master’s degree in museum studies at Harvard, given her nomadic spirit, she’s not quite sure how long she’ll do the work she’s involved with now.
But, in the meantime, she offers: “You go where you’re needed, and the wind blows you in the right direction all the time. So I feel like it is not a mistake that I ended up here. I feel like it’s my time to be here, and it’s my time to do this work.”