Special to VoxPopuli
Friday, July 9, 2021
Courtesy of the Florida League of Women Voters
Cecile Scoon (right) and fellow League member Barbara Licht at a training session about restoring voting rights to returning felons.
It was a sticky September day, and civil rights attorney Cecile Scoon was out in front of the Chapman Early Education Center in Panama City, urging people to register to vote ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
Organized by Bay County’s League of Women Voters and the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority — which not only claims Scoon as a member, but also Vice President Kamala Harris — the event was part of National Voter Registration Day, a country-wide, nonpartisan push to educate people about voting and to register as many people as possible.
While she got plenty of brush-offs that day from people convinced “voting doesn’t matter” and “my vote won’t count,” Scoon was undeterred. She zeroed in on a family with a young child.
“I asked them if they were pleased with the program at Chapman, and they loved it,” she recalled in a recent phone interview with VoxPopuli. Their enthusiasm gave Scoon the opening she was looking for to convince them to register to vote. “They had no idea they were paying well-below market rate because the program was subsidized. I told them, You’re paying $100 per week instead of $400 because people voted to allot tax dollars for this program.”
Just as Scoon hoped, the parents registered on the spot. “That’s what it takes for most people — evidence that voting can impact them directly. They registered to vote because their child was benefitting.”
Scoon, 61, has put in decades at events like these, doggedly finding the thing that matters to people and convincing them that voting will make a difference in their lives.
Passionate, driven and “really direct,” Scoon is a master at reading the proverbial room: what is it about the environment she is in, with this person, in that moment, that offers clues to strike up a conversation and allow her to make her case for registering to vote. “Paying attention to the details comes into play whether I’m in the courtroom or out in the field educating prospective voters,” she said.
And now she has a statewide audience.
“Voting is the basic building block of our prized democracy,” Scoon said when she made history last month as the first Black woman elected president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. The election took place in Tallahassee, at the League’s biannual state convention. Scoon, the past-president of the League of Women Voters chapter where she lives in Bay County, had served as first vice president for the 101-year-old civic organization for two years before her barrier-breaking win.
“League members repudiated times in the 1920s and later in the 1960s when white League members were not as welcoming to Black women,” said Scoon in a news release after her election. “My election was a rejection of that troubling past and an embracement of diversity, equity and inclusivity.”
A huge epiphany
“Diversity, equity and inclusivity” could be Scoon’s own personal motto.
Born in Washington, D.C., Scoon grew up largely shielded from the knowledge and effects of racism by her mother, Thelma, and father, Casimir Scoon, a Caribbean-born lawyer and Peace Corps director who moved with Scoon and her three younger siblings to majority-Black Antigua for four years when Scoon was 12.
The years the family was in Antigua were formative for Scoon who saw plenty of people who looked like her in positions of authority. “When you’re the majority, race isn’t an issue. You’re just yourself,” she said in a 2019 interview with the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at Tallahassee Community College.
When the family returned to Washington, D.C. the 15-year-old Scoon attended the elite, all-girls National Cathedral School — ”with presidents’ daughters and ambassadors’ daughters” — on scholarship. She later earned scholarships to Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she cross-registered to participate in ROTC training.
It wasn’t until Scoon was a freshman at Harvard, sitting in an African-American history class, that she connected the segregation and racism she was learning about to her parents’ experiences being Black in the U.S.
“In class, I heard about these incredible trials that African-Americans had been through, and I was literally cringing and squirming in my seat,” Scoon told 850 Business Magazine. “My head blew up when I realized that my mother and my father had been through what was being discussed.”
Her well-intentioned parents had never spoken about living through segregation, worried their experiences would prejudice her against white people. Scoon was furious that the information had been kept from her. Her own father, she learned, who was all about “fairness and opportunity and the Promise of America,” had had to sit in the back of the bus when he moved to the States from the Caribbean.
“[They] denied me my history," she said, incredulous. "I’m going around like everybody’s good.”
At the same time that Scoon was reconciling America’s Jim Crow past with her parents’ lives, students on college campuses across the country were demonstrating against South Africa’s apartheid system. Scoon joined the student protests at Harvard, pushing the university to divest its holdings in corporations that supported South Africa.
“A lot of students were incensed that Harvard, this bastion of learning and intellect where we don’t care what people look like, invested in that place,” she said.
Sitting in on board of trustees meetings, she listened as the trustees and the lawyers’ wrangled over the university’s stocks, the legalese flying past her. “We were like What are they saying? I said, You know what? There will never be another time in my life where lawyers sit and talk and I’m not going to understand,” she told MyPanhandle.
That was the moment Scoon decided she was going to law school.
“I thought You need to be a lawyer and you need to be a civil rights lawyer. Because myself and everyone I know have benefitted off the backs of people we didn’t know,” she said. “I was like O.M.G.! I will never walk away from my history.”
After earning her law degree from University of Virginia Law School, Scoon spent five years as an active duty Air Force judge advocate general, at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, prosecuting courts-martial, before she could turn her attention to civil rights cases.
Focusing on employment discrimintion, Scoon largely taught herself how to practice civil rights law. “I learned the hard way. There were no other civil rights lawyers in the town for me to talk to,” she recalled. “I’d call the NAACP in New York and I’d send them my complaints and say Is this right? They’d say, Yeah, that looks good. Then off I’d go to federal court.”
On the spot
Given her passions for civil rights and voter registration, it’s no surprise that Scoon took point on the League’s efforts to pass Amendment 4, the ballot initiative restoring voting rights to nonviolent returning felons who’d completed their sentences.
“We are very concerned about the marginalized voter,” Scoon told Florida Bar News. “We started out as Suffragette women who couldn’t vote. We’re very thoughtful about groups that have been pushed aside.”
In January, the Florida Bar Association awarded her the Presidents Pro Bono Award for her efforts.
Now attention turns to navigating Florida’s new voting restrictions law. On May 6, the same day Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 90 into law, the League joined with Black Voters Matter Fund, Florida Alliance for Retired Americans and three Florida voters to file a lawsuit that challenged the law’s constitutionality.
“We filed our lawsuit within minutes of it being signed — minutes! Yeah, we were right there on the spot,” Scoon said in the interview with VoxPopuli. “It's like really? There was no reason for this in Florida. Everyone patted themselves on the back. We did such a great job voting. The person who won Florida might not have made everybody happy, but the party that won, they were the ones saying We got to fix this. It's like you won! There's no evidence of any problems. Why are you doing this?”
According to the lawsuit, the new law “purports to solve problems that do not exist [and] caters to a dangerous lie about the 2020 election that threatens our most basic democratic values.”
In addition, the law “is crafted to and will operate to make it more difficult for certain types of voters to participate in the state’s elections, including those voters who generally wish to vote with a vote-by-mail ballot and voters who have historically had to overcome substantial hurdles to reach the ballot box, such as Florida’s senior voters, youngest voters, and minority voters.”
The complaint names Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, and all 67 county supervisors of elections in the state.
“This makes our work registering voters and educating voters about the changes to the voting process more difficult, time-consuming, cumbersome, and fraught with potential state sanctions for violations of new laws,” said Scoon, who joined the lawsuit herself as a named plaintiff.
But perhaps this is the moment Scoon was made for. As a Harvard student when she was dreaming of becoming a lawyer, she vowed to “make sure that I do some small part to keep the civil rights movement going in some small way.”
With the 2022 midterms looming and the most restrictive voting law since Jim Crow threatening to disenfranchise many, Scoon, now arguably Florida’s most high-profile voting advocate, is continuing that fight.
"I have spent my professional life as a civilian attorney fighting for protection and sanctity of the civil rights of individual people in their workplace,” Scoon said.
“The opportunity to help protect the voting rights of millions of Floridians in our litigation about SB 90 addresses a broader and more fundamental right of citizenship and civic participation. This is a responsibility and an honor that I and the League of Women Voters of Florida take on with solemnity and purpose."
VoxPopuli intern Olivia Brooks contributed additional reporting.