Justice  /  Journal Article

Race, Prison, and the Thirteenth Amendment

Critiques of the Thirteenth Amendment have roots in a long history of activists who understood the imprisonment of Black people as a type of slavery.

In recent years, a movement has cropped up to revise the Thirteenth Amendment, eliminating the clause that permits slavery “as a punishment for crime.” Historian Daryl Michael Scott traces the roots of this idea through Black intellectual and activist work.

In the years after emancipation, Scott writes, it was common for Black leaders to liken convict leasing to slavery. While they didn’t blame the Thirteenth Amendment specifically, nineteenth-century activists and intellectuals including Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell identified the consignment of prisoners to hard labor as one of the major wrongs perpetrated against Black Americans.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, the leasing of convicts to private landowners declined. Instead, many prisoners were made to work directly for the government—a new form of brutality that evoked little protest outside the criminal system.

“No one seemed to have a problem with the unrequited toil of prisoners building roads or raising crops for the state,” Scott writes.

At the time, organizations like the NAACP focused a great deal of energy on the horrors of lynching, but they tended to present the issue as one of a lack of due process. They were less focused on those subjected to brutal punishments after being legally convicted. It was only during the Great Depression, when hard-up white men became increasingly subject to harsh punishments, that chain gangs became a common subject for writers, filmmakers, and advocates.

In the years after World War II, the NAACP increasingly spoke up for the rights of Black prisoners. But Scott argues that a more direct predecessor to the modern “13thist” school of thought came from Black people who experienced imprisonment firsthand in the postwar period. The imprisonment of Black nationalists such as Marcus Garvey and Elijah Muhammad brought Black radical thought into the prisons. Meanwhile, many nonviolent civil rights activists became interested in prison issues after serving time. Bayard Rustin, for example, was sentenced to twenty-two days on a North Carolina chain gang in 1949. His first-hand account of the experience ultimately helped end the practice.