thirteenth amendment to the constitution


June 19th 1865: Juneteenth

On this day in 1865, the abolition of slavery was formally proclaimed in Texas, in an event which has been celebrated as ‘Juneteenth’ (a contraction of ‘June 19th’). President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in rebelling Confederate states not under Union occupation, on January 1st 1863. However, the proclamation had little effect in areas like Texas which were not under Union control. It was two years later, in June 1865, when Union troops under Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, that abolition came to the state. The Union contingent brought the news that the American Civil War was over, following the surrender of Robert E. Lee in April. Upon his arrival, General Granger read General Order Number 3 declaring slavery abolished, leading thousands of former slaves to leave the state to seek employment or to find their families. Slavery was formally abolished throughout the entire United States with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865. Juneteenth was one of the first celebrations commemorating the abolition of slavery in the United States, and served as a poignant time for the black community in Texas and elsewhere to come together in solidarity as they endured the hardship of Jim Crow which followed emancipation. The celebration of Juneteenth waned during the early twentieth century, largely due to financial concerns, but resurged with the onset of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas, making it the first state-recognised emancipation celebration. Now, Juneteenth is spreading beyond Texas, and has become a day for celebrating African-American achievement, and remembering the legacy of slavery.

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free”
- General Order Number 3, read by General Granger June 19th 1865

Don’t you know that slavery was outlawed?”
“No,” the guard said, “you’re wrong. Slavery was outlawed with the exception of prisons. Slavery is legal in prisons.”
I looked it up and sure enough, she was right. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution says:
“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.”
Well, that explained a lot of things. That explained why jails and prisons all over the country are filled to the brim with Black and Third World people, why so many Black people can’t find a job on the streets and are forced to survive the best way they know how. Once you’re in prison, there are plenty of jobs, and, if you don’t want to work, they beat you up and throw you in a hole. If every state had to pay workers to do the jobs prisoners are forced to do, the salaries would amount to billions… Prisons are a profitable business. They are a way of legally perpetuating slavery. In every state more and more prisons are being built and even more are on the drawing board. Who are they for? They certainly aren’t planning to put white people in them. Prisons are part of this government’s genocidal war against Black and Third World people.
—  Assata Shakur

just when was america great? when black americans were systematically disenfranchised and segregated? when only men could vote? when only white male landowners could vote? when white people tortured and murdered black people with impunity, took their children to watch, took pictures to commemorate their atrocities? when private citizens owned chattel slaves and indentured servants? remember, slavery under state control is perfectly legal and now outsourced to corporations under the thirteenth amendment to the constitution.

when white america broke every treaty signed between us and native nations? when there were residential schools overtly intended to destroy native culture and language? when we fought multiple wars to steal enormous tracts of land from spain and mexico, previously stolen from native nations?

when being gay was illegal? republicans and white supremacist christians, with support from cis feminists and cis gays and lesbians, are already working to make being a trans woman illegal.

when there were company stores and company towns to keep laborers buried in debt? the hard- won power of unions has been eroded and corporate power enhanced over decades.

every war this country has fought, with very few – if any – exceptions has been to extend american power and territory, not american freedoms. (in before: who, exactly, was made freer by the american revolution? anyone other than white male landowners? point them out, please.)

tell me, when was america great? when was america good?


December 6th 1865: 13th Amendment ratified

On this day in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by the states, formally banning slavery in the United States. Ratification does not require unanimous approval, and some states rejected the amendment; Mississippi only ratified the 13th Amendment in 2013, 148 years after the amendment’s passage. The 13th amendment marks the first of the three so-called ‘Reconstruction’ amendments, which secured civil and voting rights for African-Americans after the Civil War. The amendment was proposed by the Lincoln administration following the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation - which was a temporary war measure abolishing slavery in the Confederacy - to assert that the ban on slavery was to be permanent. Lincoln did not initially intend to free the slaves, and always prioritised saving the Union, but emancipation became intriscially tied to Union victory. This was due to the actions of slaves, who fled to Union lines and tried to enlist in the army. The Reconstruction period that followed the American Civil War was largely a contest over the implications of the 13th Amendment and the emancipation of four million slaves. Radicals in Congress pushed for equality of the law and opportunity, while white Southerners, with assistance from violent groups like the Ku Klux Klan, sought to maintain racial subordination and white supremacy. Reconstruction ultimately failed to truly implement freedom for African-Americans, and it was not until the Civil Rights Movement one hundred years later that America again tried to come to terms with the legacy of emancipation.

Slaves of the State: Black Incarceration from the Chain Gang to the Penitentiary by Dennis Childs

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, passed in 1865, has long been viewed as a definitive break with the nation’s past by abolishing slavery and ushering in an inexorable march toward black freedom. Slaves of the State presents a stunning counter history to this linear narrative of racial, social, and legal progress in America.

Dennis Childs argues that the incarceration of black people and other historically repressed groups in chain gangs, peon camps, prison plantations, and penitentiaries represents a ghostly perpetuation of chattel slavery. He exposes how the Thirteenth Amendment’s exception clause—allowing for enslavement as “punishment for a crime”—has inaugurated forms of racial capitalist misogynist incarceration that serve as haunting returns of conditions Africans endured in the barracoons and slave ship holds of the Middle Passage, on plantations, and in chattel slavery.  [book link]

After the abolition of slavery, former slave states passed new legislation revising the Slave Codes in order to regulate the behavior of free blacks in new ways similar to those that had existed during slavery. The new Black Codes proscribed a range of actions- such as vagrancy, absence from work, breach of job contracts, the possession of firearms, and insulting gestures or acts- that were criminalized only when the person charged was black. With the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, slavery and involuntary servitude were putatively abolished. However, there was a significant exception. In the wording of the amendment, slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished “except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been dully convicted.” According to the Black Codes, there were crimes defined by state law for which only black people could be “dully convicted.” Thus, former slaves, who had recently been extricated from a condition of hard labor for life, could be legally sentenced to penal servitude.
—  Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?
Angela Davis on Radical Transformation

Last week, I had the opportunity to listen to Angela Davis speak during a lecture at my university. While she addressed her capstone positions on class, gender, race and the prison industrial complex, those aren’t the points that I want to revisit. Instead, I want to emphasize Davis’ statements with regards to what she termed “radical transformation,” and how the lack of it has enabled the perpetuation of structures of oppression in the United States and those countries that have adopted its structures.

Davis began with an extended conversation about the elimination of Apartheid in South Africa through discussing the media response to Nelson Mandela’s death. For Davis, the media’s characterization of Mandela as forgiving white South Africans for the injustices perpetuated during Apartheid and then forgetting about the trauma is fundamentally inaccurate. Instead, she argued, no such forgiving or forgetting took place: Mandela extended his hand in cooperation with the white South Africans so that the memory of Apartheid would drive a “radical transformation of the social relations” in the country as to prevent something like Apartheid from every happening again.

This is something that has never happened in America, Davis argued. Put simply, following the abolition of slavery, America never embarked on a self-conscious project of radical transformation of the social relations or social structures of the country such that slavery could not be perpetuated again. We, as a country, have failed to generate a vocabulary to speak about the far reaching and ongoing effects of slavery in our era which is a result of the way in which both Black and white Americans have failed to acknowledge the past of slavery.

In Davis’ words, slavery makes white Americans feel guilty and Black Americans feel ashamed, and we treat it as though speaking about it would invite its return. It is this collective attitude of “moving on” for a variety of reasons, as though slavery is something that we, as a country, have triumphed over, that has prevented us from seeing the ways that slavery is still present within the social, economic, and political structures that structure the present-day America.

It is at this point that Davis returned to familiar ground. Drawing on the work of Douglas Blackmon, Davis presented the emergence of the current prison industrial complex from the convict-lease system which exploited the last lines in the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, enabling slavery “except as punishment for a crime."To this end, Davis argued that slavery never actually "ended,” it was perpetuated through a new system of incarceration, imprisonment, and legal apparatuses designed to cloak slavery from view. As Davis said:

“How can slavery be abolished by an amendment that is only six lines long?”

The truth of the matter was that the convict-lease system, which enabled the use of convicted prisoners as unpaid laborers, was the further perpetuation of the institution of slavery. It caused the local police to prosecute African-Americans on increasingly dubious legal standing resulting in the generation of the increasingly restrictive and racist laws during Reconstruction and on into the Jim Crow era (a name which she described as an oxymoron, since Jim Crow was a blackface character). To this end, the legal apparatus of the convict-lease system served the purpose of not only controlling Black bodies, but generating the labor force necessary to rebuild and modernize the South. This is a role that the prison-industrial complex still serves in our era.

But it wasn’t just the Black bodies that were managed by this legal apparatus: yellow bodies, brown bodies, even poor white bodies were subject to the structures of the convict-lease system, as they are today. Thus, for Davis, resistance is a necessity. And not just mere violent resistance that seeks to demolish the structures, but transformative resistance that seeks to transform the conditions of society so that these structures of oppression cannot be reproduced. To this end, Davis argued that this form of resistance is not merely the resistance of one group, but must include all groups oppressed not only along the lines of race, but along the lines of gender, sexuality, religion, disability and class.

True resistance, under Davis’ conception, would have to be intersectional and coalition-building, as the structures generated by slavery that evolved into the prison-industrial complex extend through-out American society and the world. She offered the example of the Israel-Gaza barrier, which uses the same technologies as the US-Mexico border fence, as the “largest open-air prison in the world,” cementing the link between the technologies that emerged from the American institution of slavery and the perpetuation of oppression world-wide.

Thus, as she concluded her talk, Davis urged us to recognize the interconnections between all of our social justice projects, as they all have common linkages within the structure of oppression as exported through US/American culture. For Davis, it is a historical fact that the failure to transform the conditions that enabled slavery has resulted in the rearticulation of the institution of slavery through multiple forms (including student loan debt), which is then exported beyond the borders of the US, thereby globalizing the prison-industrial complex and slavery itself.

To this end, Davis repeated her call for radical transformation. It is not simply enough to break the structures themselves, the very conditions that enable the construction of the structures must be transformed, and it must be done with a recognition that the very conditions themselves also impoverish those that they benefit. For Davis, under the conditions that enable slavery in our era in its multiple forms, we are all slaves.