With the ratification of the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in December, 1865, slavery was abolished. Or was it? A new Constitutional amendment currently before Congress aims to settle this surprising question once and for all. Section One of the 13th amendment states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” That phrase, “except as a punishment for crime,” spawned a contagion of arrests and imprisonment of formerly enslaved African Americans, stripping them of their new, hard-won freedom and consigning them again to slavery in the form of prison labor. The practice continues, now nationally, with the modern, multibillion-dollar prison labor industry, operating from the federal prison system on down through local jails and private prisons. Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative Nikema Williams intend to bring that to an end.
The two Democrats’ proposed Constitutional amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude may be imposed as a punishment for a crime.” Representative Nikema Williams thinks it has a chance of passing. “This is something that I think could pass on a bipartisan level,” Williams, who replaced the late John Lewis in Congress, said this week on the Democracy Now! news hour. “We’ve seen a willingness of some Republicans to come to grips with our nation’s history… once and for all, we’re going to end the exception for slavery in our Constitution.”
Williams may be right. On Tuesday, 67 House Republicans joined 218 Democrats in passing H.R. 3005, a bill ordering the replacement of a bust of pro-slavery Supreme Court Justice Roger Brooke Taney with a bust of the first African American on the Supreme Court, Justice Thurgood Marshall. Taney wrote the notorious 1857 Dred Scott decision that denied African Americans citizenship, expanded slavery to what were then U.S. territories, and helped propel the nation into civil war.
H.R. 3005 also calls for the removal from the Capitol of statues of any person who voluntarily served the Confederacy, as well as the statues of three notorious white supremacists: former North Carolina Governor Charles Brantley Aycock, who was a lead organizer of a massacre and the violent overthrow of the local, biracial government in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898; James Paul Clarke, a powerful, post-Civil War Arkansas politician, who was a strident white supremacist (Arkansas has already approved the replacement of Clarke’s statue and that of another racist 19th century figure with statues of musician Johnny Cash and civil rights activist Daisy Bates — this bill just mandates and accelerates the removal); and the notorious South Carolina racist politician John C. Calhoun, who served as U.S. Vice President, Senator, Congressman, as well as Secretary of State and War at different times. Calhoun died in 1850. He is credited with developing the filibuster as a tool to defend slavery and with being the key intellectual driving the Southern states to secession and civil war.
While Rep. Nikema Williams sees hope in those 67 Republicans who voted to remove these statues, it’s worth noting that 120 Republicans voted to keep them right where they are.
Merkley and Williams submitted their amendment on the same day that President Biden signed into law another bipartisan bill, declaring Juneteenth a national holiday. Juneteenth is the name of the annual freedom celebration that commemorates June 19th, 1865, when a Union Army officer announced to enslaved people in Galveston, Texas that they were free — more than two years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Thus freed, Galveston’s formerly enslaved people began celebrating, and the tradition has continued and grown for 156 years.
Two weeks after Juneteenth, Americans celebrate Independence Day, marking the day the original 13 colonies formally broke with the British monarchy. Of the Declaration of Independence’s 56 signers, at least 41 owned slaves.
Renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass, born into slavery, asked in an 1852 speech, “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?… The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.”
For many of the more than two million people now imprisoned here in the United States, forced labor is an inescapable fact of life, from those who cook prison meals or toil in fields to California prisoners who risk their lives fighting forest fires.
Adoption of the Abolition Amendment is a necessary step if this country is ever to face honestly the enduring legacy of slavery on which it was built.