Meigan Thompson ’99 is an assistant public defender in Memphis, TN. Her tough, necessary job has been made incalculably tougher, and more essential than ever, by the pandemic and the national wrestling with generations of racial inequities.
Thompson’s office is in the same building as the county jail. She often meets clients just before their hearings and has little time to consult with them; a best-case scenario might involve huddling for 20 minutes, before having to address the court on their case. In spring 2020, the state of Tennessee kept court dates live, then began pushing back hearings. Remote video visits were poor quality and brought worries about attorney-client privilege. In April 2020, COVID was sweeping through the jails, where conditions were bad, with lockdowns enforced 24 hours a day.
Ensuring accurate testing and effective isolation measures was difficult. It became imperative to get as many people released on bail as possible, even if living situations on the outside were often far from ideal; most of Thompson’s clients experience housing insecurity or live in cramped spaces. Thompson saw any hope of justice and equity slip away as she worried about her own health and the health of her clients and their families. One morning, she would meet with a client, and the next, they tested positive for COVID-19. “I have a job to do, I will do my best to keep myself safe,” was her mantra.
But Thompson had a way to get the word out: she started the Humanity Project (HP) for the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office, to shine light on her clients’ struggles in May 2020. She created the Project to help interns learn interviewing and storytelling skills, fundamental to effective work in the justice system. The HP became a tool for advocating for what her clients need: transparency, truth, respect, representation, reduced bail, and early release.
Her first article, “I Can’t Breathe” is about a client with COVID-19, but it’s about much, much more. It led to an October 2020 profile in The Washington Post feature “24 Hours with American Workers,” which followed Thompson for a single hour as she met with three clients, including an 18-year-old man chained to the wall in a basement courtroom holding cell.
A younger Meigan Thompson talks with Hillary Clinton, with a younger Rishi Sahgal in the background!
A graduate of Spelman College, Thompson worked briefly in public relations and then in a variety of nonprofits in Washington, DC before leaving to work for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. “[I was] dissatisfied with the privileged ambience of the well-funded nonprofit scene, as it is so disconnected from the daily struggles of everyday people,” Thompson says. After moving to Jackson, MS to work for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi Youth Justice Project, she worked with civil rights lawyers on juvenile justice reform and earned a master’s in Community Development.
“I developed a vocabulary (and experience) to identify, name, and discuss the way that systems criminalize blackness, and therefore black people,” Thompson says, which inspired her to become a civil rights lawyer, earning a JD from UC Irvine.
A Spanish major in college, Thompson is a powerful writer to whom language is of primary importance. “It is great to see the younger generation, who already have a language and vocabulary for systemic inequality and racial injustice—that can be hugely transformative,” she says.
As a public defender, she is one of the few black lawyers in the Memphis Public Defender’s Office. The city suffers high unemployment, despite major corporations headquartered there. Memphis has, as Thompson describes, “a reverberating energy, a legacy of racial injustice, and a community of advocates for change, many of whom are black women.”
While she’s not officially allowed to be political, Thompson sees her work as the beginning of a fight against one of the most troubling legacies of slavery: mass incarceration. So, she does her job, inspired by the small victories that come from winning a legal argument or a client success story, and mentors others to join her in the struggle for justice.