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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.

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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.

By the 1960s, many prisoners were identifying their work in prisons, which commonly paid just pennies per hour, as a form of slavery. Some in the Black Power movement began tying this treatment to the 13th amendment. Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur, for example, described looking into the amendment after a guard told her that “slavery is legal in prisons.”

From prisoners’ critiques, “13thism” spread to academics, though Scott argues that many of them made errors in drawing a direct line from the amendment to the exploitation of prisoners. For example, he notes that “convict slavery” existed for white people in the same period as Black chattel slavery and that abolitionists generally did not oppose it.

Nonetheless, Scott writes, “with 13thists holding major positions in the academic, intellectual, and cultural world, their point of view is likely to grow until it shapes this generation’s understanding of slavery the way Roots shaped a previous generation’s.”

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Fire!!!, Vol. 5, No. 2, Examining the Humanity of Blackness (Spring 2020), pp. 2–39
Association for the Study of African American Life and History