Most of us know that slavery started to end with the Emancipation Proclamation, consisting of two executive orders signed in 1862 and 1863. Of course, we also know that the orders only applied to states that were not under Union control, so there were several states in which the slaves were not freed. In 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery throughout the entire United States. Yes, that was a good day for black people, agreed.
But one thing that most of us forget is that the Thirteenth Amendment didn’t completely end slavery in the United States. Section 1 of the 13th Amendment specifically states that:
“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.”
GALLERY: From Slavehouse To White House
In other words, we do have slavery in the United States for those who are incarcerated. Funny how most of our history teachers forgot to share that tiny bit of information. But then again, we are usually given the G-rated version of black history when we are being taught by the descendants of our historical oppressors. This reminds us of the importance of ensuring that our kids are properly educated – those who choose not to embrace education have voluntarily committed themselves to psychological slavery. Not understanding the systems in our society mean that you’re ultimately begging to be “pimped.”
We all know what’s going on in prisons: African Americans are the ones most likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated. This leads to our prisons becoming a landfill of wasted potential for the African American community, where men no longer make the best husbands or fathers, and are instead turned into publicly available labor meat for American corporations. As Dr. Byron Price describes in his book, “Merchandising Prisoners,” the free labor in American penitentiaries has become a bastion of corporate profitability, as slave labor is the best kind of labor there is. Whites didn’t keep us in chains because they felt good about it: they kept us in chains because they couldn’t afford to let us go. The legal right for us to use slave labor when someone is convicted of a crime is a dangerous loophole, implying that anyone who receives the arbitrary label of “criminal” is therefore going to be a slave. Joseph Stalin used this trick years ago once he realized that free labor from criminals would be a great way to boost the Soviet economy.
The slavery of America’s prison population is something that must be understood, shared and confronted by the American people. The impact on the black family has been devastating, and prison has become an alternate reality of the American dream, where simply being convicted of a crime implies that you are no longer deserving of the most basic human and civil rights. This denial of rights continues for life, as most states across America do not allow felons to vote in state and federal elections.
The Democracy Restoration Act, sponsored by Senators Russ Feingold and John Conyers, would allow ex-convicts to vote in federal elections. The bill needs our support, so we’ve got to fight to get behind it. I spoke with Rev. Al Sharpton the other day, who is in complete agreement with this objective and plans to make it part of the agenda for his Black Leadership Forum in New York City on April 17. I also spoke to Melinda Hightower, the highly progressive and capable president of the National Black Law Students Association (I’ve always argued that black law students should be on the forefront of criminal justice issues in the African American community). In the coming months, our Your Black World Coalition will engage in proactive strategies to provide support for this bill, so that felons can become Americans again.
In the American Revolution, there was a famous phrase, “No taxation without representation.” This phrase can be translated to 2010, where millions of ex-convicts pay taxes to the government but are denied proper representation by that government. This has got to stop and it’s got to stop right now. Let’s go out and make it happen.