The parallels between our own time and 1865 are especially striking; both moments are defined by national political debates shaped by the struggle for Black citizenship and dignity. In many ways America is in the midst of a Third Reconstruction that echoes elements of its First.
Racial slavery’s demise threatened long-standing political and economic institutions that upheld White privilege and power in America. President Andrew Johnson’s approach to Reconstruction held the line by envisioning a nation where little had changed except the legal status of Black people on paper. White control over Black bodies could continue by ensuring that the Confederacy went unpunished, the redistribution of land to freed slaves halted and states’ rights remained sacrosanct enough to defy the spirit of any constitutional amendment (and a few in particular) with impunity.
After the passage of the 13th Amendment
, Southern states instituted
” designed to disenfranchise Blacks and weaponize anti-Black violence as a purposeful strategy to maintain White political and economic domination over newly freed African Americans
Today’s system of disenfranchising convicted felons has its roots in Reconstruction-era racist policies designed to capitalize on the flaws in the 13th Amendment to stop Black people from voting
. Even after Floridians voted in
2018 to restore voting rights to former felons
, the legislature instituted a de facto poll tax to prevent Black residents who had served prison time from being enfranchised
. Widespread voter suppression efforts largely targeting Black Americans have been a defining feature of the modern-day political landscape
, especially following the
2013 Supreme Court decision gutting portions of the Voting Rights Act of
Americans committed to racial justice must remember the past as we seek to carve out a more hopeful political future that, partially because of the 13th Amendment’s shortcomings, continues to prove elusive in our own time. The focus of that fight cannot be a single issue or community; it must be America’s system of policing and punishment, which has served for so long to wreak mass havoc on the bodies, minds and families of Black Americans.
Movements for the abolition of slavery in the 19th century
, as those to defund or abolish the police do now
, rested on efforts to overturn an evil system that dehumanized Black people under the cover of legal and political arguments
, against all contrary evidence
, that the system offered the best protection and benefits for everyone
. “You lost a big audience the minute you say it
,” Il presidente Barack Obama recently argued
di “sconfiggere la polizia,” “which make it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done.
” While Obama’s words have resonated deeply especially among center-left and right leaning Americans
, his comments make for poor history
When it comes to questions of Black citizenship and dignity
, branding is never the problem
. Even after the abolition of slavery
, public hearings and Freedmen’s Bureau investigations rivelato
“violence against ex-slaves
, including whippings
, ritualistic torture
, and murders.
” For the generation of Black Americans who struggled for equality in the wake of the 13th Amendment
, opposition came not from how their demands for justice were phrased but that they were demanded at all
This generation of Americans, unlike those living in slavery’s immediate aftermath, have the profound opportunity of writing a new chapter in our nation’s history. Words unmatched by deeds will not be enough.
The 13th Amendment failed to fundamentally transform the structures of anti-Black violence and degradation that contoured Black lives. Anziché, it offered a formal equality before the law, one that could technically be ripped away from those accused of being criminals. The badge of the criminal then, replaced the mark of slavery, creating a new caste system that persists into the present. The 13th Amendment’s 155th anniversary should be one of not just celebration but mourning as well — for the opportunities for systemic change America has already squandered. Those possibilities need, adesso più che mai, to be recovered.