Backed by a coalition of dozens of human rights organizations, Democratic lawmakers on Friday reintroduced legislation to do away with the constitutional loophole which has allowed forced labor to persist in the United States for more than 150 years—the 13th Amendment.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) led two dozen of their colleagues in introducing the Abolition Amendment, which would strike the "slavery clause" from the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Adopted in January 1865, the amendment bans enslavement in the U.S., except as a form of punishment for criminal activity.
The lawmakers introduced the Abolition Amendment a day after President Joe Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth—the anniversary of the day Black people who had been enslaved in Galveston, Texas learned that the Union had won the Civil War and slavery was abolished—a federal holiday. Williams said doing away with the slavery clause is the next step in working to achieve equal justice in the United States.
"By deciding we cannot allow any exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude to persist in the Constitution, we stand on the shoulders of giants whose legacies call upon us today to make our union ever more perfect, more equal, more inclusive, and more free."
—Elizabeth Wydra, Constitutional Accountability Center
"States are amending their constitutions to finally abolish slavery in all forms, and Congress will lead the way and finally abolish involuntary servitude in America," Williams said in a statement. "We are in a period of reckoning with our country's history and a lot of that history is marked with racism and systems of oppression. Eliminating the loophole in the 13th Amendment that allows for slavery is another opportunity to do that."
More than 20 states still include slavery clauses in their constitutions, but three—Utah, Nebraska, and Colorado—have recently put the question to voters regarding whether to strike slavery clauses from their state constitutions. Large majorities in each case approved the measures, including 80% of voters in Utah.
After it was ratified, the 13th Amendment allowed southern states to adopt "Black Codes," which drove the over-incarceration of Black men for perceived infractions such as not yielding to white people on sidewalks. Sheriffs then placed inmates in convict leasing programs in which they were forced to work for wealthy landowners—sometimes on the same plantations where they had been enslaved.
As Merkley explained in a press statement, by 1898, nearly three-quarters of Alabama's state revenue came from renting out the forced labor of Black Americans.
"At the moment that we are celebrating, if you will, the 13th Amendment and the end of slavery and its eventual announcement ... we should at the same time recognize that the 13th Amendment was flawed," Merkley said. "It enabled states to arrest people for any reason, convict them, and put them back into slavery."
"The loophole in our Constitution's ban on slavery not only allowed slavery to continue, but launched an era of discrimination and mass incarceration that continues to this day," the senator added. "To live up to our nation's promise of justice for all, we must eliminate the slavery clause from our constitution."
Bianca Tylek, executive director of the nonprofit Worth Rises, which is "dedicated to dismantling the prison industry," said the 13th Amendment as written significantly impacts people who are incarcerated today.
"We're talking about people who can be beaten for not working. People can be denied calls and visits, contact with their family," Tylek told the Associated Press. "People can be put into solitary confinement. People can take hits on their long-term record."
The slavery clause represents "a huge stain on our culture, on our Constitution, on our nation to say 'No slavery except,'" Tylek added. "We have to be able to say no slavery—no exceptions."
"This effort to pass and ratify the Abolition Amendment joins a proud, centuries-long struggle to bend the arc of America's Constitution further toward progress," said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center. "By deciding we cannot allow any exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude to persist in the Constitution, we stand on the shoulders of giants whose legacies call upon us today to make our union ever more perfect, more equal, more inclusive, and more free."
Constitutional amendments require approval by two-thirds of the House and Senate and must be ratified by three-quarters of state legislatures.
Williams expressed hope that the issue would not be viewed as a partisan one but would be embraced by all members of Congress.
"I am willing to work with you as long as you are willing to work around making sure that everyone in this country—regardless of their background, their ZIP code, or their bank account—has access to the full promise of America," Williams said. "That includes making sure we rid involuntary servitude in this country in our Constitution."