Voting rights restored, man teaches about disenfranchisement
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — At 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds, Kontar Macklin is hard to miss.
Full of energy and a friend to most, Macklin, 41, wears many hats: Husband, father, entrepreneur, wrestling champion. He is also a convicted felon.
Until the May primary election, Macklin was unable to vote because of what’s known as felony disenfranchisement. According to a study following the November 2016 election, it’s estimated that 6.1 million Americans are unable to vote because they had felonies on their record. Tennessee is one of 12 states with post-sentence voter restriction laws. In six of those states, including Tennessee, more than 7 percent of the adult population is disenfranchised.
The story of Macklin’s efforts to regain full citizenship illustrates the steps involved in regaining the right to vote.
Though he smiles when recalling his childhood, Macklin, a 1996 Whitehaven High School graduate, says his early years weren’t easy.
“Hectic. House to house. Really, wasn’t nothing stable,” Macklin said. “My mom left when I was in the third grade and moved to (California). I didn’t see her again until my senior year of college.”
After bouncing from his mother’s house to his aunt’s, he eventually moved in with his father in the ninth grade. It would be 2001, during his final year at Albany State University, before he again laid eyes on his mother.
Addicted to crack and HIV positive, the woman who gave him life clinged to her own.
“She was on drugs bad. By the time I saw her again, she was gone. She was out of it,” he said.
Later that same year, his mother suffered a fatal overdose.
When Macklin returned to Memphis for her funeral, he decided to stay home, and dropped out of college. He worked various jobs before eventually settling down at Best Buy.
Despite seeing firsthand how drugs affected his mother, it was drugs that later affected him.
Though Macklin earned a living selling electronics, one of his friends was a cocaine supplier. Macklin was around the game long enough to know he wanted to be part of it.
In 2005, on what would’ve otherwise been a normal Saturday morning, Macklin’s phone rang. Before they swung by the neighborhood gym that evening, his supplier friend asked Macklin to go for a ride with him. But, it wasn’t a regular trip. It was a drug pickup to get 5 kilos of cocaine.
Their afternoon plans didn’t play out the way the duo expected.
Unbeknownst to both men, the person driving the drugs from Houston to Memphis was stopped by police. After giving officials details of the intercepted deal, police trailed the man to the pick-up location in Memphis.
“As soon as we pulled up, the guy pulled up. We take all of the drugs from him, he pulled off, and all the cops pulled in,” said Macklin.
With someone else taking the fall, Macklin and his friend bonded out the same day. The moment he stepped from behind bars following the arrest, Macklin said he was a changed man.
“I wanted to get out . it was smooth sailing,” he said of his decision to leave his short stint in the drug game in the past.
So when he got a call two years later with an order to report to a federal building in downtown Memphis, he wasn’t exactly sure why. But once he arrived, Macklin knew his smooth sailing had come to a temporary halt.
Because the driver of the cocaine transported the drugs across state lines, Houston officials charged Macklin and his accomplice with conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute in excess of 5 kilos of cocaine.
“When they went to sentencing, they started off with nine years (in prison), but I wouldn’t take it,” he said. “I went from nine to six and from six to five. When it got to five, I decided to sign.”
In 2007 — two years after that Saturday morning traffic stop, six years after losing his mother to drugs, and shortly after proposing to his girlfriend — Macklin went to prison.
During his 39 months behind bars, Macklin missed out on big moments. One stood out: Voting for the man who became the first African-American president of the United States.
“It sucked ... and being behind bars, just watching on TV and seeing it,” he said.
But despite being allowed to watch Barack Obama win the presidency, voting wasn’t a topic of discussion among inmates.
Macklin, who believes prisons don’t do enough to equip inmates for successful re-entry into the world, says no one at the facility ever spoke with him about having his voting rights restored.
“Prison is a joke, and I tell everyone that. They don’t help you do nothing,” he said.
After serving his time, Macklin was released in 2011. With a felony conviction on his record, his primary goal was getting his life back to normal. He married the love of his life and eventually resumed working at Best Buy. He even became an entrepreneur, opening a mobile detailing service.
A free man, he thought he had it all: Family, employment, a roof over his head. Yet, his citizenship wasn’t quite complete. At the urging of his wife, Macklin began the process to have his voting rights restored.
Macklin didn’t know where to begin. He says that having voting rights restored wasn’t a concept many inmates were made aware of before their release.
So, with the help of family and friends, he researched how to get started.
The process seemed simple enough: Complete all parole requirements and submit a certification of restoration to the election commission. But, as easy as it seemed, Macklin faced a hurdle.
“I got denied the first time,” Macklin said of his first attempt. “I was done with it ... but other people told me I needed to go back and try again.”
After obtaining documentation to prove that he was no longer on parole, Macklin made a second attempt at having his rights restored. And, he succeeded just in time for the May 2018 primary election.
“I was geeked. I was teary eyed. I instantly went and voted,” he said, describing what it felt like to head to the poll with his wife and son.
Had it not been for the support from those around him, Macklin may have remained one of more than 6 million people in the United States who are unable to vote. It’s something Memphis community activist and pastor Earle Fisher says is an issue.
“You don’t see this issue (voter restoration) amplified high enough, at a high enough volume and pitch,” said Fisher. “Kontar should not have had to go through all of these hoops after he had served his time.
“The process is so convoluted that it’s discouraging people from trying to get their rights restored because they feel like they served their time, but they still have to jump through so many hoops. That it is adding insult to injury and pouring salt into the wounds of their citizenship.”
Voter registration card in hand, Macklin is doing his part to educate others. On his personal Facebook page, the entrepreneur is transparent about his journey. He uses the outlet to show others that anything is possible.
“I’m ready to show guys that it can be done, but you have to want it. You can’t sit back and chill,” Macklin said.
“I’m always going to push to be better, Macklin said. “This here is a privilege, and you have to use it. Take advantage of it ... because it can easily be taken away from you.”
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com