One hundred and fifty-eight years ago this month, Congress ratified the 13th Amendment decreeing that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States.”
Black people were freed from bondage, and the subsequent era of Reconstruction sparked a wave of enlightenment among them. Black people now had the liberty to educate and assemble, build communities, earn wages and serve in public office.
But these newfound freedoms, and the prospect of rising power and influence within the Black community, sparked rage in Southern white communities. They responded brutally and violently with lynchings, land theft and restrictive laws designed to suffocate the political, educational and economic self-determination of the country’s newly minted citizens. These attacks have spanned generations, from 1865 through the Civil Rights Movement, and into today with the struggle for equity and justice.
The promise of the 13th Amendment has yet to be fully realized because a provision within this amendment has harmed the very community it was supposed to free. Despite its promise of freedom, the 13th Amendment contains a crucial exception: Slavery and involuntary servitude are illegal except as punishment for the conviction of a crime.
In a country that leads the world in mass incarceration, the consequences are devastating as incarcerated people are exploited for their labor by prisons, including private prisons operating for profit. What’s more, the people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons are disproportionately Black people and other people of color. For example, Black people represent only 13% of the U.S. population, but account for 37% of people imprisoned, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
It’s a tragic situation for our nation as forced labor is once again being extracted from people of color. And for some people, their conviction means they will lose another right of citizenship – the right to vote.
This situation reminds us that the struggle for freedom continues for many. It reinforces the importance of the SPLC’s fight to end mass incarceration, fight discrimination and empower voters in the South, where the majority of Black voters live.
Fortunately, national efforts to reform the country’s prison system and end racial and ethnic disparities are working. By 2021, the U.S. prison population had declined by 25% since its height in 2009, according to Bureau of Justice statistics. Yet, Black and Brown people remain overrepresented in prisons across the country, where they may endure forced labor.
As we mark the anniversary of the 13th Amendment this month, let us not only honor the enslaved people who did not live to benefit from its passing, but continue to fight for the people of color who fall outside of its protection.
Illustration at top by SPLC