The Strengths of Abolitionist Rhetoric in 2018

I was particularly interested in the Prison Abolitionist Movement mentioned in Mariame Kaba’s essay “Free Us All” that we read for Friday’s class. I was familiar with the concept of prison reform and even the arguments in decreasing the numbers of prisons across the country, but I had never heard of prison abolitionism. It piqued my interest especially because I’ve taken a lot of history classes here (mostly with Dr. Behrend) where I’ve worked semi-extensively with the eras of slavery, emancipation, and their lingering effects on contemporary American society.

This got me thinking… What were the benefits of speaking the language of abolitionism in 2018? And, how did this engage with course concepts of memory and forgetting?

Abolitionism has global meanings, but for the purpose of this post, I’ll keep my focus to the United States before the Civil War. Abolitionists were more than just people who had some anti-slavery sentiment (i.e. Abraham Lincoln is not usually considered an Abolitionist, even though his policies became more abolitionist based as his Presidential tenure continued). The Abolitionist movement gained the most traction in the 1850’s and perhaps the most famous abolitionist is William Lloyd Garrison, whose paper, The Liberator, was the primary abolitionist text in the country at the time. In order to “get to the point” of the post, I’ll direct you to a page on abolitionism if you’re interested in that history.

Anyway, abolitionism saw a great victory with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. We discussed the specific language of the amendment in class, but I’m going to put it here too:

Section 1: 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.

Section 2: Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The clause in bold is one that sticks out to me (and one that I think lots of people now forget). This was intentional because it gave the legal “loophole” that led to a rampant increase in what was considered “criminal” in the South.

After the Civil War ended, many Southern whites were both outraged and terrified by the lack of a free labor source that they could easily exploit. To keep capitalizing on the labor of African Americans, many Southern States passed what are called “Black Codes” that criminalized many situations that newly freed African Americans found themselves in, therefore creating a steady flow of people who were considered “criminals” in the eyes of the (very racist) law.

This is an example of one of Mississippi’s Black Codes:

The Vagrant Act, November 24, 1865

…SEC. 2 provides that all freedmen, free negroes, and mulattoes in this State, over the age of eighteen years, found on the second Monday in January, 1866, or thereafter, with no lawful employment or business, or found unlawfully assembling themselves together, either in the day or night time, and all white persons so assembling with freedmen, free negroes, or mulattoes… on terms of equality, or living in adultery or fornication with a freedwoman, free negro, or mulatto, shall be deemed vagrants, and on conviction thereof shall be fined in the sum of not exceeding, in the case of a freedman, free negro, or mulatto, fifty dollars, and a white man two hundred dollars, and imprisoned, at the discretion of the court, the free negro not exceeding ten days, and the white man not exceeding six months…

(found in Radical Reconstruction: A Brief History with Documents by K. Stephen Prince, 2016)

There’s a lot that can be unpacked here, so I invite other people to do that if they’d like to in subsequent blog posts. For this, I’d like to just concentrate on where this law declares people “vagrants” because they are unemployed or homeless. This was not uncommon for these newly freed people, since they had been denied financial compensation for so long. Therefore, under laws like these, African Americans were targeted by laws in order to be used as a “criminal” workforce.

Fast forward to today (even though Jim Crow laws also could be explained in detail). We see in Kaba’s essay that this targeting of the law towards African Americans is NOT a thing of the past. Therefore, it seems to me that the use of “abolition” in the Prison Abolition Movement is beyond even just a conscious move, it’s a smart one. This organization is forcing people to remember the mistreatments of African Americans throughout history and complicating the notion that these things do not occur in today’s society. For example, anti-vagrancy laws to me seem very similar to laws that are in place today concerning loitering, determining where people can/cannot be.

Kaba writes, “In fact, organizing popular support for prisoner releases is necessary work for abolition. Opportunities to free people from prison through popular support, without throwing other prisoners under the bus, should be seized.” This very much reminds me of what I’ve learned in terms of how people went about gaining support from abolition in the 1850’s. As I keep looking into this idea of prison reform/prison abolition, I’m going to try and be very conscious of memories of injustice in the past because forgetting them is dangerous.

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