The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution

Who knows what evil lurks in the small print of great documents?

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, What could be wrong with that?

Those who know the Constitution and maybe even carry a copy in their pocket are unlikely to know it’s nearly deadly flaw—and why it was written.

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.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

It’s only 32 words long, but 14 of those words are devoted to an exception. I never knew that and you probably didn’t either. Those 14 words are the evil that lurks and a bit or research shows why they are there as well as their devious purpose.

The end of slavery and its perpetuation—all in a single document

The exception reads, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Run that over in your mind for a moment. Then look at it again. It now reads, if you are convicted of a crime, you may be subject to slavery or involuntary servitude.

Jesus Christ.

Further, you will note that it doesn’t define what ‘crime’ might meet the standard, kind of an open book to whatever southern justice of the day might come in handy. Keep in mind that it was both presented and ratified in 1865 at the conclusion of the Civil War. Further yet, it puts the seal of approval on chain gangs, workhouses and the renting out of prisoners as labor to private enterprise.

The implications were not lost on freed black slaves

Anything is a crime if you declare it so. Sit down to rest your weary bones, it’s loitering. Find yourself in the wrong neighborhood and it’s suspicion of theft. But that was then and now is now. 155 years have passed this very week since then.

And yet, if you’ve paid the slightest attention to racial justice, you’ll realize we didn’t even get anti-lynching laws until as recently as—grab your hat and sit down—not even yet.  Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky just held that magnificent bill from passage by unanimous consent in the Senate this week—sitting there and all ready for passage. But now it looks like it may not happen this year. The racist South strikes again and I’m sorry Rand, but you’re holding the whip and the chain.

Read the history of anti-lynching legislation and weep

The first recorded lynching (and who knows how many un-recorded) in the United States was in 1835 in St. Louis. The accused killer of a deputy sheriff was captured and, while being taken to jail, chained to a tree and burned to death.

Thirty years later and after a Civil War, the bloodiest ever fought by Americans, the faulty 13th Amendment was passed. After failed anti-lynching legislation in both 1890 and 1909, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill was first introduced in 1918. After failing, then re-introduced in subsequent sessions of Congress until finally passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on January 26, 1922, its passage was blocked in the Senate again by a Southern Democrats filibuster. They justified their opposition on the grounds that blacks were responsible for more crime, more babies born out of wedlock, more welfare and other forms of social assistance, and that strong measures were needed to keep them under control. These were free American citizens that had to be kept under control by racial genocide.

That was nearly 100 years ago and you can see just how little advancement we’ve made in the half-hearted fight against racism. We now have Rand Paul of Kentucky keeping that southern strategy alive, this time by Republicans who replaced Democrats in the racism race-to-the-bottom after President Lyndon Johnson (Texas) pushed through the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Stay with me, we have a ways to go yet

Between 1882 and 1968, nearly two-hundred anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress, among which only three passed the House. Seven presidents between 1890 and 1952 asked Congress to pass a federal law. As you might expect by now, no bills were approved by the Senate during this time because of powerful opposition from the conservative Southern Democratic voting bloc.

In 2005, in a resolution sponsored by 80 senators, the US Senate formally apologized for its failure to enact these and other anti-lynching bills. Resolutions are those meaningless acts of contrition, sponsored by the un-contrite when they’ve been caught shitting-the-bed and promise never to do it again. The sheets got soiled again anyway though, fifteen years later when Rand Paul lost control of his bowels.

Fast-forward in this slow and tedious tale of woe to 2020

The Emmett Till Antilynching Act passed the House of Representatives, by a vote of 410–4. I don’t know what happened there—apparently the House developed a conscience after a hundred years or just got worn down from the Ku Klux Klan and mobs with blood on their hands.

But in the Senate, Rand Paul of Kentucky single-handedly kept the bill from passage out of his great personal concern that a convicted criminal could face “a new 10-year penalty for minor bruising.” Well, you certainly can’t have any of that after 200 years of shooting, hanging, beating to death and setting fire to black Americans.

Paul wanted to amend the bill to “an attempt to do bodily harm” for an act to be considered lynching.

Really, Rand? As if lynching was somehow detached in your warped little southern mind from an attempt to do bodily harm. Some things just never cease to amaze me.

Who knows? Maybe next year.


Photo credit: Reggie Jackson

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