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A Peculiar Exception: Louisiana’s voters deserve say about slavery clause

Slavery was formally abolished across all states when the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865. However, the 13th Amendment also allows for slavery or involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime where “the party shall have been duly convicted.” As such, its ratification only abolished the practice of slavery in which a person has ownership of another person as if the individual were property.

The Louisiana state constitution also prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime. That one-clause exception promotes the use and abuse of incarcerated people for free and forced labor. This exception can also be linked to mass incarceration, particularly of Black Americans, that still exists in Louisiana and across the country. As The Advocate newspaper noted, forced labor has been used in janitorial work at the state Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion, and in farming at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which is a former plantation, typically for a few cents per hour.

Colorado, Utah and Nebraska have removed similar clauses from their constitutions. Here in Louisiana, we have not been so fortunate. State legislators recently voted in favor of allowing such language to remain as part of its foundation of laws.

During the 2021 regular session, state Rep. Edmond Jordan introduced a bill that would allow voters to remove the exception from the constitution and prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude outright. He proposed that removal of such language be placed on the November 2022 ballot.

During the hearing, Rep. Alan Seabaugh stated that Jordan’s initiative may have been one of the most dangerous bills he had seen during the session. He said he was afraid that this legislation, if passed, could open the door to legal challenges of every felony conviction in the state. Jordan responded that many states have removed or do not have such language in their constitutions, and they are incarcerating people just fine without any legal challenges.

The initiative was defeated by a vote of 9 to 5 in the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure. Despite having knowledge of the ugly history of slavery and how it shifted to involuntary servitude after slavery was abolished, nine legislators still voted against a bill that would allow voters – their constituents – to have the power to determine whether such language should remain in Louisiana’s laws.

Jordan’s proposed legislation did not do anything to decrease the state’s mass incarceration rates, which are the highest in the country. However, the bill did attempt to remove a provision that serves as a symbol of hate, perhaps the oldest and most grotesque form of hate in this nation’s history – slavery.

Opponents criticized Jordan’s cause and dismissed it as simply a gesture that does not address any of Louisiana’s real prison issues. However, as Jordan stated after the committee hearing, “If symbols didn’t mean anything, people wouldn’t try so hard to preserve them. If we can’t get past simple things like this, then how as a body are we going to address more complicated issues?”

Far too often, people across this country, especially in the South, fight tooth and nail to hang on to symbols, like the Confederate flag or monuments of generals who fought against the United States in the Civil War. They claim these symbols remind them of their heritage and pride in those who have come before them.

However, they fail to recognize that these same symbols also serve as constant reminders to people of color, like myself, of the suffering, pain and downright dehumanization of our ancestors. To continue to allow slavery or involuntary servitude in our state constitution is a travesty, and the citizens of Louisiana should have the right to at least vote on this matter. Unfortunately, far too often we are forced to realize that pride persistently takes precedent over pain.

Terry Landry is policy director for the SPLC Action Fund in Louisiana.

The photo atop this blog, taken by an aerial drone, is an image of the Louisiana State Capitol Park in Baton Rouge. (Credit: iStock)