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The 13th Amendment reads in Section One: “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, nor any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Understanding this contradictory character of the 13th Amendment sheds light on the utilization of the criminal justice system in the perpetuation of bondage for the purpose of institutional racism and class exploitation.
Slavery ended in the U.S. after the 13th Amendment was ratified on Dec. 6, 1865. However, disabled slaves were kept on plantations because slavery was connected to the ability to work. Jim Downs, among other scholars, wrote an essay entitled, “The Continuation of Slavery: The Experience of Disabled Slaves during Emancipation,” which explains that disabled slaves were seen as non-workers. Because they could not work, they were kept on plantations to be “taking care of.” But in reality, they continued to work for their “masters.”
There is an alternative politics of memory that Americans can also practice, and it might help to keep fascists out of public squares and do something concrete, literally at the same time: Honor Reconstruction. Remembering Reconstruction ought not to shunt aside the politics of Confederate memorials. Yet remembering this pivotal era certainly deserves to be built into the new national politics of memory. The sesquicentennial of Reconstruction is September 1, 2017.
In 1973, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals issued a report which stated in part: “The prison, the reformatory and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure. There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it.” This same report stated directly: “No new institutions for adults should be built and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed.”
When Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Orders, Number 3, he had no idea that, in establishing the Union Army’s authority over the people of Texas, he was also establishing the basis for a holiday, “Juneteenth” (“June” plus “nineteenth”), today the most popular annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in the United States.