From Slavery to Silence: Felony Disenfranchisement’s Impact on African Americans

Camp Humphreys Juneteenth 2021 (51263884870)

Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19th, commemorates the day in 1865 when enslaved African Americans in Texas finally learned of their freedom, a full two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. This day stands as a powerful symbol of liberation and a reminder of the ongoing quest for civil rights and equity. The struggle for true freedom didn’t end with emancipation; it continues today. Felony disenfranchisement is one of the greatest issues plaguing the black community today. Felony disenfranchisement is the denial of voting rights on the basis of a felony conviction. Although laws preventing people with criminal convictions from voting can be traced to colonial times, most modern felony disenfranchisement laws originated after Reconstruction, when post-Civil War constitutional amendments granted the right to vote to Black men. Southern states promulgated felony disenfranchisement laws at the same time they were devising other tools such as poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses designed to prevent Black voters from accessing the ballot. 

In this article Tomi Robb, a dedicated Legal Aid Society staff attorney  specializing in reentry, delves into the profound impact of felony disenfranchisement in Tennessee. She sheds light on how historical injustices and inequities have shaped current policies that still marginalize black individuals, highlighting the enduring fight for justice.

Historical Context: How Historical Black Codes Paved the Way for Modern Felony Disenfranchisement in Tennessee

In 1790, the population of the territory of Tennessee was 9.6% African American. By 1840 African Americans were 22% of the population. In 1834, as that number was on the rise, Tennessee amended its state constitution from stating, “Every freeman . . .  shall be entitled to vote” to stating that “Every free white man . . .  shall be entitled to vote.” The 1834 changes also stated, “Laws may be passed excluding from the right of suffrage, persons who may be convicted of infamous crimes.”  However, on Feb 25, 1867, black men gained the right to vote in Tennesseet, marking a significant early victory in the fight for equality. However, the new law did not “allow the colored man to hold office or sit in juries,” and the gains were swiftly undermined by systemic barriers designed to maintain racial inequality.

The introduction of Black Codes, which included harsh penalties for minor offenses under so-called “pig laws,” disproportionately targeted black and poor individuals. These codes restricted their ability to purchase property, serve on juries, or even appear in public spaces freely. This legal framework laid the foundation for modern felony disenfranchisement, which continues to strip voting rights from a substantial portion of Tennessee’s black population, perpetuating a cycle of marginalization and inequity.

Robb explains that the concept of “infamous crimes” (crimes deemed so morally reprehensible that it implies unworthiness of belief in a court of law ) has significantly contributed to felony disenfranchisement. Blacks were not able to have a jury of their peers in court and could unjustly end up with a conviction for a disenfranchising crime. Before January 15, 1973, there were specific disqualifying crimes and a judge had to make a finding of infamy, but in 1981 all felonies became disenfranchising convictions. Today, the list of permanently disenfranchising crimes in Tennessee law is lengthy, and disenfranchisement through offenses such as theft and drug crimes disproportionately affect the poor.

The list of crimes leading to disenfranchisement has expanded significantly over the years, with changes implemented in 2006 being made retroactive to 1986. “A lot of the laws implemented were retroactive, so something could be passed in 2006 affecting people all the way back to 1986,” Robb explains. Furthermore, the inclusion of various drug and theft crimes has increased the number of offenses that result in disenfranchisement. A new barrier that developed in January 2024 is that the Tennessee Election Coordinator’s office tied restoring the right to bear arms to the right to vote. “This means that in practice there are crimes for which people can be permanently disenfranchised that go beyond even the long list of permanently disenfranchising offenses listed in Tennessee law.” Robb emphasizes. This policy exacerbates the challenges for individuals trying to regain their rights, highlighting the enduring impact of historical injustices on modern policies and the ongoing struggle for true equity.

Social and Political Impact

 A recurring theme in Tomi Robb’s work is the sense of invisibility and second-class citizenship felt by disenfranchised individuals. “People feel like they are invisible members of their community,” Robb says. “If I can’t vote, I don’t have a voice. I don’t get to be a part of how we shape our culture and policies.” This feeling of invisibility is a major issue, with disenfranchised individuals longing for their voices to be heard and to know that they matter.

In Tennessee, the issue is particularly acute. As of 2022, the state ranks first in the nation for black disenfranchisement, with over 21% of African Americans unable to vote.[1] This high rate of disenfranchisement has profound social impacts, including fewer African Americans holding office or serving on juries. “None of their peers are taking part in politics. They aren’t seeing people like them in important roles, which reinforces that idea that they do not have a voice,” Robb notes.

The challenges in Tennessee are stark, and the confusion inherent in the complicated restoration scheme makes people wary. Last year, at least ten people were indicted in Montgomery County for allegedly being ineligible while registering, attempting to register, or voting. Just this month, eleven people were indicted for allegedly being ineligible while registering or voting in Sumner County. This has a very chilling effect on those looking to restore their rights. The case of Pamela Moses vividly illustrates these challenges. Moses, a Memphis activist, faced a six-year prison sentence for trying to register to vote, despite believing she was eligible. After pleading guilty to several felonies in 2015, she was never informed of her ineligibility, and election officials failed to remove her from the rolls. In 2019, after a dispute with election officials, Moses attempted to restore her voting rights. A probation officer erroneously confirmed her eligibility, leading to her prosecution. Her conviction was overturned in 2022 when it was revealed that prosecutors had withheld exculpatory evidence, highlighting the systemic failures that perpetuate disenfranchisement.

Restoring voting rights in Tennessee is fraught with bureaucratic challenges and confusion. Robb describes a failed bill aimed at streamlining the restoration process and the complexity of navigating the current system: “There are people eligible to register to vote who can’t because the process is so long and difficult. If you are in the gap years of the system, there is not a process for what you need to do.”

Moreover, Robb highlights the inconsistencies and confusion within the legal system: “There are different rules for the years the individual was convicted in. It is confusing for petitioners and judges. Judges rarely see petitions in their court rooms. One judge said they had been on the bench ten years and had never seen someone bring a restoration petition through their court.” This confusion deters many eligible individuals from even attempting to restore their voting rights.

The ongoing impact of felony disenfranchisement in Tennessee underscores the need for reform and the persistent struggle for true equity. The sense of invisibility and second-class citizenship experienced by disenfranchised individuals highlights the critical importance of ensuring that every voice is heard and every vote counts.

Advancing Voting Rights Restoration in Tennessee: Legal Reforms and Public Awareness

 Efforts to improve the voting rights restoration process in Tennessee are ongoing. Robb underscores recent legal actions mandating revisions to the state’s Certificate of Restoration form, acknowledging its non-compliance with the National Voting Rights Act. “Getting a certificate of restoration that people can actually use would be a huge improvement,” she stresses.

Furthermore, Robb emphasizes the critical role of public awareness and education: “I do think that people in decision making positions have any idea how hard the restoration process is.” Making people aware can lead to significant changes. Public education initiatives, particularly around events like Juneteenth, are pivotal in empowering individuals with knowledge about their rights and the complexities of the restoration process.

Juneteenth serves as a poignant reminder of the enduring struggle for civil rights and equity. The issue of felony disenfranchisement in Tennessee underscores ongoing systemic barriers that disproportionately affect African Americans. Through sustained advocacy, legislative reforms, and heightened public awareness efforts, there remains optimism for restoring the voting rights of affected individuals and ensuring equitable civic engagement for all members of the community.

For citizen rights restoration tools, visit Legal Aid and its partner sites below:


Levine, S. (2022, February 17). The untold story of how a US woman was sentenced to six years for voting. The Guardian.

Pilkington, E. (2022, December 27). Pamela Moses: The woman who was jailed over a voting mistake speaks out. The Guardian.

Wales, E. (2024, March 1). TN Democrats argue state’s voting rights restoration process is illegal in letter to DOJ. WATE 6 On Your Side.

[1](October 2022) Locked Out 2022: Estimates of People Denied Voting Rights Due to a Felony Conviction.


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