Commentary

The 13th Amendment didn’t end slavery – but it did fuel mass incarceration | Michael Coard

Black people are still being enslaved in 21st century America. This is how

December 6, 2022 6:30 am
Replica of the United States Bill of Rights (Getty Images).

Replica of the United States Bill of Rights, documenting the 10 amendments to the US Constitution (Getty Images).

It was exactly 157 years ago, on Dec. 6, 1865, that the 13th Amendment was ratified by the states, thereby becoming law of the land in 1865. Many people mistakenly believe this amendment ended slavery and involuntary servitude. It did not. It simply created mass incarceration, which is slavery by another name.

You’re probably asking, “Didn’t the 13th Amendment end slavery in 1865?” And you’re probably also asking, “Are Black people still being enslaved in modern-day America?” The answer to the first question is no. The 13th Amendment did not end slavery in 1865. And the answer to the second question is yes. Black people are still being enslaved in modern America.

Allow me to explain my answer to the first question regarding whether the 13th Amendment ended slavery in 1865.

No. It didn’t- not really, because Section 1 of the 13th Amendment reads: “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 …”

What exactly does that mean?

A graphic design illustrating the limitations of the 13th Amendment for director Ava DuVernay’s 2016 Netflix documentary, titled “13th.” Bottom: A July 1907 photograph illustrating the truth of those enslaved under the 13th Amendment, with the handwritten caption “City Convicts in their Sleeping Quarters. Shackles Never Removed” (Image via the Library of Congress/The Philadelphia Tribune).

Well, what that tricky language means is slavery and involuntary servitude SHALL exist within the United States if you’re incarcerated for a crime.

In other words, instead of allowing enslavement and involuntary servitude of people simply because they are Black, the 13th Amendment, by using tricky language, allowed — and still allows — the enslavement and involuntary servitude of people simply because of “racistly” created, “racistly” targeted, and “racistly” enforced criminal laws enacted in and stemming from something called the “Black Codes.”

That tricky language in Section I of the 13th Amendment is the result of the cowardly compromise of the victorious slavery-opposing patriotic North that allowed the defeated slavery-loving traitorous South to co-author the amendment. And those co-authors in Congress incredibly included the former Confederate Vice President, four former Confederate generals, five former Confederate colonels, six former Confederate cabinet officers, and 58 former Confederate Congress members. That explains everything.

Using that tricky language as maliciously planned, the South immediately created the aforementioned Black Codes. Those codes criminalized recently “freed” Blacks by creating and selectively enforcing vagrancy, loitering and curfew laws. They also created and selectively enforced laws that made it illegal for Blacks to refuse exploitative and abusive so-called jobs.

And if Blacks violated any of those or similar Black Codes, they were sent to prisons that “convict-leased” them to 365/24/7 labor on the same plantations and cotton fields and tobacco tracts and coal mines and railways from which they had recently been “freed.”

The Black Codes legislation went into effect beginning in 1865 and up to the early 1960s for the sole purpose of legalizing the criminalization of recently “freed” Blacks along with their descendants and doing so in a manner consistent with the tricky language of the 13th Amendment.

The Black Codes, which were passed in the South with the North co-signing, were part of the one-two punch. The “one punch” was the 13th Amendment’s maliciously racist “punishment for crime” language and the “two punch” was the codes themselves, which succeeded in throwing so-called freed Blacks and their descendants back into slave-like conditions via new criminal laws.

Here are some examples of those laws:

Several southern states had laws that basically re-enslaved Black children by allowing county sheriffs to legally kidnap “free” Black child orphans and “free” Black children of poverty-stricken parents and lease those orphans and children to white owners of plantations, cotton fields, tobacco tracts, coal mines, railways and other penal work camps until the boys turned 21 and the girls 18. For example, in Mississippi, the law was called “An Act to regulate the relationship of master and apprentice … as it relates to … free negroes ….” And although it provided no pay whatsoever to the children, it did provide lucrative payments to the local counties from those exploitatively wealthy white business owners.

Blacks were arrested, found guilty, fined and jailed for vagrancy, which was defined then and is still defined now as “having no visible means of support.”

Those Blacks had just recently been held in slavery, which made it impossible to have earned income and owned property, which in turn meant they could not have accumulated any means of support whatsoever. After being convicted of vagrancy and other contrived charges, Blacks were legally sold into forced labor service to a “master.”

So-called employed Blacks had to sign a one-year labor contract with payment not being provided until the end of that year. Often, there were so many fraudulent deductions by the employer including, but not limited to, for example, fraudulent deductions for rent to live on the company grounds since Blacks weren’t permitted to live anywhere else and for food and other necessities that were available only from the employers’ company store.

These and similar deductions were so exorbitant that the employee wound up owing the employer at the end of the year. It was illegal for Blacks to resist corporal punishment by their employers.

It was illegal for Blacks to quit their jobs.

It was illegal for Blacks to speak out publicly against racism. If they did so, they’d be arrested, charged, found guilty, fined, and jailed for “seditious speech.”

It was illegal for Black men to raise their voice in the presence of a white woman.

It was illegal for Blacks to testify in court except against other Blacks.

For more information about the Black Codes’ convict leasing system, watch the enlightening documentary “Slavery By Another Name” free of charge.

Slavery never really ended because the 13th Amendment still allows it | Michael Coard

Allow me to explain my answer to the second question regarding whether Black people are still being enslaved in modern  America.

Yes. They are. As documented in a Sept. 7, 2022, report by the Pew Charitable Trusts based on verified records provided by the ACLU and Global Human Rights Clinic, “In seven southern states – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas – almost all work by prisoners goes unpaid.”

In 2022. Unpaid. That’s not a typo.

By the way, Black inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, for example, are still forced to pick cotton on the prison plantation for two cents an hour. Pick cotton. In 2022. Two cents an hour. That’s not a typo.

The aforementioned Pew report also notes that “The average wage nationwide for incarcerated workers who maintain prison facilities ranges from 13 cents to 52 cents an hour.” In 2022. Thirteen cents. That’s not a typo.

Despite Black folks constituting 13 percent of America’s population, we constitute 38.4 pecent of America’s prison and jail population. And check this out: There are more Black adults in public and private prisons and jails and on probation, parole, or house arrest in 2022 than the number of Blacks enslaved in 1850.

The answers to the two questions I presented prove that there’s a big problem with the 13th Amendment. Despite that, it would be foolish to argue that this amendment wasn’t a step in the right direction. But this step (actually, this half step) in the right direction is not nearly enough under the circumstances. So what’s the solution? Well, it’s certainly not to abolish the 13th Amendment. Instead, it’s to amend the amendment in order to read as follows, “Slavery and involuntary servitude are hereby abolished. Period!”

And that can be done by pushing for passage of Senate Joint Resolution 81.

On Dec. 2, 2020, Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay of Missouri sponsored, along with Senate co-sponsors Democrats Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, and Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Senate Joint Resolution 81, which reads as follows: “A joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States to prohibit the use of slavery and involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime.”

Although that resolution is great and long-overdue news, don’t start celebrating yet. It still has to move through and out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, then be approved by two-thirds of the House and Senate, and ultimately be ratified by three-quarters of the country’s state legislatures.

Call your U.S. Senator at (202)224-3121 and tell them or her to support Senate Joint Resolution 81. If you make that call, you support abolition. If you don’t make that call, you support slavery. It’s as simple as that.

This column was first published by the Philadelphia Tribune, a publishing partner of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. 

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Michael Coard
Michael Coard

Opinion contributor Michael Coard, an attorney and radio host, is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune. His work appears on Tuesdays on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @michaelcoard.

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