The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, established at the end of the American Civil War in 1865, is celebrated as the legal document that ended slavery in America. However, despite its initial aim, the amendment did not entirely eradicate slavery, leaving behind a legacy of injustice that continues to impact marginalised communities throughout the United States.

The Emancipation Proclamation (1863)

The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Lincoln in 1863, aimed to liberate enslaved individuals to support the Union cause and weaken the South. Initially announced on September 22, 1862, with the final proclamation issued on January 1, 1863, it granted freedom to enslaved people in areas beyond Union control and engaged in rebellion against it. While it significantly altered the course of the Civil War, it did not extend to states bordering the Union, including Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, where slavery persisted even after its enactment. The Emancipation Proclamation did not go far enough since it did not apply to states that remained loyal to the Union and still allowed slavery in states that were loyal to the Union, which led to the 13th Amendment to try and abolish slavery throughout the whole of the US.

The 13th Amendment

The 13th Amendment was signed at the end of the war and states "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”.  While on the surface, this appears to be a prohibition of slavery, the crucial exception regarding involuntary servitude as criminal punishment meant that oppression and exploitation could continue in a system akin to slavery in the US.

Undermining the EM and 13th Amendment

The Southern states eagerly enforced a series of laws known as the Black Codes to subvert the amendment and to retake control over the previously freed slaves. These laws often subjected individuals to arrest for minor offences (for example, unemployment, loitering, or vagrancy), leading to their exploitation through systems like the convict lease system. Under this system, enslaved individuals were leased to private companies and plantations to perform labour under brutal conditions. This system allowed businesses to profit from the free labour of convicts, perpetuating a system parallel to slavery under a different name.

Even after the abolition of the convict lease system, the legacy of forced labour persisted through the widespread use of chain gangs and prison labour. African American men, women, and even children were subjected to gruelling work assignments, often under the supervision of armed guards. The conditions mirrored those of historical slavery, with little regard for the humanity or well-being of the individuals forced into labour.

Modern Day Implications

The legacy of the 13th Amendment’s loophole echoes through the criminal justice system today, contributing to the incarceration of African Americans, attached to the exploitation of prison labour, contributes to the perpetuation of modern-day slavery. The prison-industrial complex profits from the incarceration of marginalized communities, further establishing systemic inequalities and injustices. In 2022, it was reported that Black inmates were forced to pick cotton on the prison’s plantation for 2 cents an hour (£0.000032 an hour).

Industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, and hospitality frequently rely on vulnerable undocumented migrant labourers who face exploitation and abuse, akin to modern-day slavery. These workers often endure substandard wages, unsafe working conditions, and limited legal protections, resembling conditions akin to slavery. Furthermore, human trafficking continues to thrive in the shadows of society, exploiting the most vulnerable individuals for profit.

A Modern Case

In 2009, John Christopher Smith was forced by Booby Paul Edwards to perform labour for 100 hours a week without pay for 5 years at a South Carolina restaurant. During that time, Edward would abuse Smith by punching, beating him with a belt, hitting him with pots and burning his neck using tons that had been dipped in oil.

Edwards was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay $545,000 to Smith after pleading guilty to one count of forced labour.

This illustrates the ongoing prevalence of exploitative practices.

The Importance of Addressing the Loophole

Recognising the shortcomings of the 13th Amendment is critical to rectifying the ongoing injustice. True abolition requires not only closing loopholes but also dismantling systems of oppression and inequality. This would include a commitment to restructuring the criminal justice system, mass imprisonment and protecting and upholding the rights of marginalised communities. Furthermore, addressing the causes of poverty, racism, and exploitation is essential to creating a more just and equal society.

  • This article was written by Olivia Yau, from Wildern School, as part of Newsquest's Young Reporter Scheme.