Representative William Lacy Clay (D-MO-1), a Black Catholic, has helped to introduce legislation that would eliminate from the 13th Amendment a clause that has allowed for slavery in the US since the 1860s.
"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."
A perennially controversial subject, especially among African Americans (who are most disproportionately affected by it), the clause has received renewed criticism since 2016's Oscar-nominated documentary 13th from Ava Duvernay—herself a (lapsed) Black Catholic.
"Our Abolition Amendment seeks to finish the job that President Lincoln started by ending the punishment clause in the 13th Amendment... [which] has been used to drive the over-incarceration of African Americans since the end of the Civil War," said Clay in a joint statement with co-sponsor Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon).
While Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves trapped in the Confederacy, it had no effect on slave states bordering the Union. In 1863, a bill to abolish slavery nationally was introduced.
The bill was eventually reworked into a constitutional amendment, which passed the Senate the next year, narrowly made it through the House, and was subsequently ratified by the states—all with a penal labor clause included.
The clause, originally a part of the laws created in 1787 to govern the Northwest Territory (now Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin), was inspired by a Catholic abolitionist from Italy, Cesare Beccaria. He believed life imprisonment (aka "hard labor") should replace capital punishment.
In practice, of course, America has kept both capital punishment and prison-based indentured servitude—the latter to the tune of $2 billion dollars' worth of free labor every year.
Most Americans see slavery as still having an effect on Black people today, and mass incarceration seems to fit smoothly in the long line of de facto slavery existing since emancipation—beginning with peonage and sharecropping.
And with renewed calls to "abolish" or "defund" the police arising from the reality that policing in the United States comes directly from the slave patrols of the Antebellum South, Sen. Merkley argues that the proposed amendment is a no-brainer.
"As we take on the long and difficult challenge of rooting out systemic racism in our nation, ending the slavery loophole in the 13th Amendment is critical step in that challenge."
This step may have to wait, though, as it is reportedly unlikely that the amendment will gain any stream during the current Congressional session.
Further complicating the process is the fact that Rep. Clay was defeated by upstart Justice Democrat Cori Bush in August's Democratic primary. Bush officially won the District 1 seat last month.
Other Catholics co-sponsoring the bill include Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), and Representatives Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ-3), Sylvia Garcia (D-TX-29), Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-CA-44), and Deb Haaland (D-NM-1)―about a third of the total congresspersons involved.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder of Black Catholic Messenger, a priesthood applicant with the Josephites, and a ThM student w/ the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).