In America, we celebrate the end of slavery with the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment. This amendment is the culmination of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. Lincoln won the 1864 election with a slim margin of the 25 remaining northern states. So the Emancipation Proclamation was merely an executive order. Lincoln was only mildly in favor of the 13th Amendment because it was still a political grenade. Lincoln was assassinated before the amendment would be ratified by the required 3/4 of states. On December 18, 1865, Secretary of State Seward certified the 13th Amendment.
Hooray! Black Peoples are Free
The text of the amendment clearly stated that slavery and involuntary servitude shall not exist with the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. However, there was an inadvertent clause relating to an exception allowed as punishment for a crime.
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.Passed by Congress January 31, 1865. Ratified December 6, 1865.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
This clause allowed a perpetuation of slavery in the form of free labor. Immediately many southern states set about passing laws that targeted freed slaves and black citizens. These laws would be called the “Black Codes”. The amendment implied that these newly freed slaves were citizens in full standing. Black people could now own property, marry, and even testify in court (so long as the case only involved black people). The former Confederate states took a different viewpoint and set about to curb these activities. They passed laws against vagrancy. There were now strict labor laws that required black people to sign contracts for 1 year of service at a time. A black man could not find new work unless their prior boss agreed to this. Laws were passed to prohibit businesses and owners from offering higher wages to entice black laborers away from their current work contract. The penalties for breaking these laws were arrests, beatings, and forced labor. While the northern states with denser populations had professional police forces, the south was still recovering and paying restitution for its sedition. This meant there was no money for professional policing; leaving the activity to citizen militias and vigilantism. The men of appropriate age to fulfill these roles were Confederate soldiers returning from a war that they just fought to keep slavery intact.
These laws overtly and covertly targeted black citizens. By criminalizing their existence, this made them eligible for involuntary servitude. The reason being that just like the lack of funding to supply professional policing, there were no funds for confinement either. So the solution was to allow those who required cheap labor to feed and shelter these prisoners in exchange for that labor. To no surprise, the the people who had the housing structure for this labor as well as the demand for this labor where the same slave-owners who held them prior to the war.
Black Codes led to the 14th and 15th Amendments
Recognizing the unjust interpretation of the 13th Amendment, northerners became enraged and passed 2 more amendments. The 14th Amendment, vetoed by Andrew Johnson and overridden, granted equal protection to former slaves. It also gave black people the right to vote with universal male suffrage. This amendment was passed in 1867 and in 1870 the 15th Amendment was passed. This amendment guaranteed that a citizen’s right to vote could not be denied on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Hooray! Black Peoples are Finally Freed
With the passage of these two amendments, black citizens were running for and winning offices across the south. About this time the south was growing impatient with the northern occupation and reconstruction. By 1877, the last federal soldiers withdrew from the south. In this new era, white supremacy started to rise. This time saw the birth of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was not a singular presence or representation of the supremacy of whites. Worse yet, it was the same group of demographics who had previously been placed in the citizen policing roles just a few years earlier. So no longer were there people protecting and upholding the laws of the land. Those intent on enacting their own moral beliefs continued to oppress and repossess any sense of agency that the blacks had developed after the 14th and 15th amendments were passed. The letter of the law said that all men were free at this point, but the reality was that the white society still set the rules of how government, business, and civilization word operate. This left only table scraps around the fringes of society for freed slaves to glean.
While this started the Civil Rights Movement, no significant changes would come about until 1964 & 1968.
There has been a knee on the neck of Black American’s as a whole since the new world was claimed.
Throughline Podcast American Police, June 4, 2020