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Democratic Lawmakers Draft Resolution to Fully Abolish Slavery

Democratic Lawmakers Draft Resolution to Fully Abolish Slavery

Democratic members of the House of Representatives and the Senate put forth a resolution on Wednesday to eliminate language within the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution which permits slavery to be imposed as a form of legal punishment.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who cosponsored the measure along with Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Ed Markey (D-MA), and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), told The Associated Press that the 13th Amendment “continued the process of a white power class gravely mistreating Black Americans, creating generations of poverty, the breakup of families and this wave of mass incarceration that we still wrestle with today.”

Merkley explained that the proposed revision is “kind of saying to the world, let’s not forget this big piece of injustice that’s sitting squarely in the middle of our Constitution, as we wrestle with criminal justice reform.”

In an emailed statement to AP, Van Hollen said that “this change to the 13th Amendment will finally, fully rid our nation of a form of legalized slavery.”

In the House, Congressman William Lacy Clay Jr. (D-MO), who serves on the Congressional Black Caucus which was founded in 1971 by his father and predecessor, former Democratic Representative William Clay Sr., said that the proposal “seeks to finish the job that President (Abraham) Lincoln started” and that it would “eliminate the dehumanizing and discriminatory forced labor of prisoners for profit that has been used to drive the over-incarceration of African Americans since the end of the Civil War.”

Contrary to popular belief, the 13th Amendment did not entirely outlaw slavery.

It 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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

That final clause has led to the exploitation of labor by people in prison, who are frequently subjected to working for a pittance – or no wages at all – in factory assembly lines and outdoors among the elements.

“Researchers have estimated the minimum annual value of prison labor commodities at $2 billion, derived largely through a system of convict leasing that leaves these workers without the legal protections and benefits that Americans are otherwise entitled to,” wrote AP.

Consequently, the Amendment’s insidious wording has caused disproportionate harm to Black Americans especially in the South, AP wrote:

Many Americans will recognize modern-day prison labor as chain gangs deployed from prison facilities for agricultural and infrastructure work. The prevalence of prison labor has been largely accepted as a means for promoting rehabilitation, teaching trade skills and reducing idleness among prisoners.

But the practice has a much darker history. Following the abolition of slavery, Southern states that lost the literal backbone of their economies began criminalizing formerly enslaved Black men and women for offenses as petty as vagrancy or having unkempt children.

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Michele Goodwin, a constitutional law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said that the constitutional loophole has effectively resulted in the legal re-enslavement of Black Americans.

“These people became criminals, and it became very difficult for many abolitionists to use the same kinds of emotional messaging about the humanity of these individuals,” Goodwin said. “Your freedom has been taken away — that’s the punishment that society has assigned. The punishment is not that you do slave work, that is unpaid labor or barely paid labor.”

Numerous human rights and social justice organizations, inculding The Sentencing Project, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Human Rights Watch, and Color of Change have endorsed the resolution.

“It is long past time that Congress excise this language from the U.S. Constitution which should begin to put an end to the abusive practices derived from it,” Laura Pitter, deputy director of the Human Rights Watch’s US division, told AP.

Successfully amending the Constitution is no small task, however. Ratification requires approval from two-thirds of the House and Senate as well as three-quarters of state legislatures.

Forty-nine days until the inauguration.

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