My honorable name is Rickey McGee, and as a member of the #StuckOnReplay team, I am now a sound in your ear because I’ve been given the opportunity to introduce our National petition to amend our UNITED STATES Constitution’s 13thAmendment, more specifically to do away with its exception clause.
As a country Americas, apparent fixation with the systemic disenfranchisement hyper-criminalization, and imprisonment of its Black citizenship has not been lost to the seasoned eye. While chattel slavery marked a deplorable period in this country’s history it is the actions, or often times inaction of this country’s leadership post-emancipation that is equally disgraceful. Today I will specifically speak to the very Article that was to have elevated the social status of my forbearers from chattel to Men, a clause which had actually facilitated their re-cartelization through imprisonment. The 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution, seen as the grandest emancipation gesture in U.S history, has at its core a provision that has re-instituted our standing as property through criminal sanction. Black people have known from the day that the system of antebellum plantation slavery was deemed “illegal” by the 13thamendment, that the justice system was then appointed its designated heir. It was obvious to them, and the Articles co-authors that to criminalize freeman was simply a new way to control a marginalized population within the slavery of the South, thus exercise slavery under other names and other forms.
The 13th amendments exception clause has its origins in Article 6 of Thomas Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which itself had sought to place free and “fugitive” blacks into private slavery rather than the public penal servitude as a punishment for crimes fashioned from racially discriminatory laws. Slavery in America was racially biased and the regulation of slaves was, in the end, the regulation of race, in fact, slavery itself was this country’s first institution of Mass Incarceration. The legal system was used to support post-civil war recovery in the south as illustrated in the political dynamics which shaped the penal sanctions imposed upon Black people. New legal and social patterns of discrimination emerged at the time when the wording of the 13th amendment was being debated on the Senate floor, discussions held by a powerful slaveholding class whom themselves were hostile towards industrialization. It was freemen that legislation could be tailored to create severe disabilities towards in an effort to replicate the trust causation of slavery, profit based on a system rooted in the exploitation of Black people.
After the passing of the 13th amendment it soon became a law which burdens blacks dispositionally which indeed validated that it’s influenced could be traced to racial consideration. Through the crafting of Black codes, confederate states imposed crippling statues on freemen which were sanctioned to establish systems of peonage or apprenticeship which resembled pre-emancipation slavery. Legislators sought to maintain control over free slaves by passing criminal laws and ordinances directed at blacks by now tailoring petty crimes as serious offenses. For example, a Georgia law passed in 1875 which made the stealing of a hog a felony, while in Missouri “pig laws” defined theft of property worth more than $10 as grand larceny which now involved a penalty for up to 5 years of “hard labor”, if convicted of course. As a result of these “colorblind” laws southern prisoners swelled, and for the first time became predominately black. The population tripled in just two years. Today nothing separates the social experience of Black & White Americans in this country like their involvement in the Criminal Justice system where 1 to every 9 Black men between the ages of 20-34 is incarcerated compared to 1 to every White male in the same age demographic. These numbers have a genocidal hue to them, do we wonder how they have become so pronounced under the legislative eye our government?
Stated by Justice Marshall in 1978 “racism in our society has been so pervasive that no one regardless of wealth and position has managed to escape its impact. The experience of the negro in America is not merely the history of slavery alone but that a whole people were marked as inferior by the laws and that mark has endured. The dream of America as a great melting pot has not been realized for the negro, because of the color of his skin he never even made it into the pot! Quasi-color blind Judicial, Legislative, and penal laws all played a meaningful role in ensuring that transitional inequality was at the heart of every provision, just as in the case of the 13th Amendment’s exception clause. History has revealed that the framers of the Constitution, even former President Mr. Lincoln himself was motivated be invidious racial prejudices and considerations based on the criminogenic stigma of Black people. Despite the fact that a law may be drafted as racially neutral on its face there are always factors derived from even unconscious racism that infiltrates the Legislative result. Courts now have openly recognized that laws of yesterday were camouflaged with a discriminatory purpose. Even the Civil Rights act of 1866, which was explicitly designed to eradicate the deep institution of slavery had in fact only reinforced the wholesale renting to death of black people branded as either felons or misdemeanant, thus legislating the system known as convict leasing. Ostensibly neutral laws were intentionally being used to oppress Blacks. Vagrant laws were passed diabolically with the intention of reintroducing them back to the central tenets of slavery. These laws provided for the selling of these people back into slavery as a penalty for the crimes committed. The Civil Rights acts of 1866-1870-1871 & 1875 had all respectfully fell short in eliminating the racial order which had simply re-invented new ways to target blacks through the execution of punitive policies and practices.
Although the overt imprints of colonial slavery had all but died, Institutions around this country had created during the 4 decades after the Civil War a public & political association between blackness and criminality so methodically that we were considered to be inherently criminalistics. Movies like the “Birth of a Nation” in 1914 served as propaganda tools used to cement the stereotypes of Black criminality into the national consciousness mind of people. Due to the language detailed in the 13th amendment’s exception clause a society had now existed which now openly tolerated the re-cartelization of blacks Americans through the evolution of Antebellum Slave Plantations, Chain Gangs, Convict Leasing camps, Peonage camps, Prison Plantations to a privatized prison industry.
The detainment of Blacks was now justified by a national belief system that identifies crime in terms of race and race in terms of crime. Now considered as this Nation’s deviant class race has factored into criminal profiles, reasonable suspicion searches, to stop and frisk provisions. Every day of our lives we still endure daily indignities from the legacy of slavery from 100 to 1 crack to powder ratios where 96.9% of those convicted at the height of its passing were Blacks, race has still served as a significant factor during sentence enhancements, sounds familiar?
There is much debate as to whether the Mass Incarceration of black people is akin to slavery. Well placed in a different context just imagine if Antebellum plantation slavery was a child, would you be able to recognize him as an adult? How about if I told you that he was now a multi-billion-dollar industry contingent upon the dehumanization, magnified criminalization of black people who serve as its greatest commodity.
The 13th Amendment’s exception clause is a disgraceful badge of slavery which has either directly or indirectly contributed to the continued systemic subjugation of Black people in this country. Our mission today is to represent the voice of those, who because of their neglected political status never had the opportunity to debate the very amendment that impacted them the most. This is not merely a symbolic endeavor, but a very real opportunity to rise above simply being in this country but of it! The 13th Amendment’s exception clause is not just insensitive but was eerily prophetic when one examines the progressive dehumanizing practices legislated to target black Americans in this country since its inception. To amend the 13th Amendment’s exception clause is more that our rights, it's our obligation.
Written by Rickey McGee, Organizer, and creator of the Community Resource Center at MCI Norfolk, and member/Internal Liaison for #StuckOnReplay.