Black History Series: The 13th Amendment’s Restriction on African American Freedom

Study says black men serve longer sentences for same crime than white men. iStockphoto/Getty Images

This article was published in Democracy and Me March 7, 2019. In celebration of Black history month we would like to re-post it to begin our Black History Series for February 2020.

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

The 13th Amendment Section 1
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.

One of the turning points of the Civil War was when Abraham Lincoln in 1863 after much consternation and deliberation passed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The declaration did not “free the slaves” per say, as is commonly purported. In fact, it only freed the slaves of the states that were under rebellion during the Civil War. However, at the end of the Civil War a series of amendments were passed that aimed to give African Americans legal freedom, expand upon that freedom and grant equal protection under the law. That legislation consisted of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. The 14th amendment granted Black people citizenship and the 15th amendment gave Black men voting rights. But the legislation that actually freed the slaves was the 13th amendment.

The 13th amendment stated that the only time American citizens could be enslaved was for punishment for a crime. This law had a particularly adverse effect on African Americans, as they were often wrongfully criminalized and incarcerated at a much higher rate. So in essence, they often remained slaves when they were incarcerated. Before the Civil War slave codes were implemented in the south to restrict the movement of slaves. These laws (for example) stopped slaves from gathering together in groups at churches, from bearing arms and from reading and writing. The idea was to perpetuate and maintain the system of slavery. After the war was over southerners passed Black Codes, which were laws that greatly restricted the lives of free Blacks. After slaves were free, southerners were upset and tried to put Black people back into a position that was as close to slavery as possible. The Black Codes would eventually evolve into Jim Crow laws, which was a system of laws that criminalized Blackness and insured they would be incarcerated and lose their freedom for the most minor of offenses. The primary thing Jim Crow laws did was enforce a system of legal segregation all throughout the south for many years. Its legacy still has a great impact on the US today.

Many scholars argue that the South’s idea of incarceration has its roots in slavery. In this way, Jim Crow laws directly targeted former slaves after the Civil War ended. In fact, the Ku Klux Klan was formed by disgruntled ex-confederate soldiers who felt an obligation to curb and frustrate the new found freedoms of free blacks. Even though Jim Crow laws were abolished one can still note the devastating effects of these laws that unfairly targeted African Americans.

Michelle Alexander in her groundbreaking text entitled The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness stated that more African Americans are imprisoned today – that is, in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than the entire slave population in 1850. This fact is directly tied to the 13th amendment and its provision to enslave those being punished for criminal activity. Alexander argues that mass incarceration disproportionately affects African Americans. For example, in 2010 in the state of Mississippi 57% of those incarcerated were African American. She goes on to say that mass incarceration in contemporary times serves the same purpose as it did in pre-Civil War slavery and the post-Civil War Jim Crow laws, and that is to maintain a racial caste system. According to Alexander a “racial caste” system is a racial group being locked into an inferior position by law and custom. In this way, Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems, she maintains that our current system of mass incarceration is also a caste system; what she calls the new Jim Crow. After slavery was abolished, racial discrimination through Black codes and Jim Crow laws prohibited many African Americans from living in public housing, gaining employment, from voting, and receiving a good education. This happens often with many African Americans today after they are released from prison. Many are charged for crimes they did not commit or given felonies for minor offenses. Furthermore, many of the men that are behind bars are forced to produce various products for slave wages as low as $.86 to $4.00/Daily. Some items that are surprisingly made by prisoners include jeans, lingerie, park benches, canoes and baseball caps. Below are resources that can help students continue to explore the notion of the new Jim Crow and Modern Day Slavery.

The Shape of Slavery
How much do incarcerated people earn in each state?
11 Products Made by Prisoners
Summary of The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Black Codes: United States
Slavery By Another Name
The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs and Community
The gap between the number of blacks and whites in prison is shrinking
Inmate Race
Luzerne “Kids for Cash” Scandal

1 Comment

  1. I did not know that the thirteenth amendment said that no one shall be held as a slave unless convicted of a crime. Which sounds fine now, until you understand that in the past, it was a crime to be black. I like that this article explores that.

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