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Louisiana Voted to Keep Slavery

Outdoor sculpture dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Transatlantic slave trade is on display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice that opened in 2018 in Montgomery Alabama
Outdoor sculpture dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Transatlantic slave trade is on display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice that opened in 2018 in Montgomery (AL). Sculptor: Kwame Akoto-Bamfo. Credit: Ron Cogswell, CC-BY-2.0 / Flickr

Louisiana recently voted to keep Slavery. Four U.S. states voted to remove language from their state constitutions that said slavery is legal as a criminal punishment. Yet, Louisiana voted on the contrary. In other words, those in Louisiana voted in favor of keeping the slavery exception even after the legislator, who had sponsored the ballot initiative, turned against it.

On the surface, it appears that one hundred and fifty-eight years after slavery was abolished in Louisiana, many wish to defend it. Given Louisiana’s history, more peculiar things are not unheard of.

How the vote went

According to the Baton Rouge Advocate, Amendment No. 7 was backed by thirty-nine percent of voters and opposed by sixty-one percent in unofficial results.

Democrat Rep. Edmond Jordan of Baton Rouge, the capital city of Louisiana, sponsored the proposal. His aim was to clarify the language in the state’s Constitution.

The particular section causing concern focused on the abolition of slavery as well as limits of involuntary servitude restricted to lawful punishment meted out to prisoners.

Jordan said he initially wanted to remove both slavery and involuntary servitude from the state Constitution. Afterwards, he tried to change it to allow the latter in cases of “the administration of lawful justice.”

A lot of confusion

As reported by Will Sentell of the Baton Rouge Advocate, Jordan said during the law-making process that things had gotten fouled up. In his point of view, the wording of the ballot measure got twisted to the point that the plan could even be read to permit slavery.

“There was just a lot of confusion,” he said. Still, it is difficult to understand why a significant section of lawmakers put up for a vote a referendum permitting slavery, be it in society or prison.

The Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL), Sentell explains, opposed the amendment. Some tried to “thread the needle” by banning slavery and involuntary servitude while allowing inmate labor.

Poor wording versus ill-intentions

The CABL, as reported in the Louisiana Illuminator, opposed Amendment 7 for its poor wording.

“Our current constitution says that ‘Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, except in the latter case as punishment for a crime,’” the CABL overview explains.

“Compare that with the wording of this amendment: ‘Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, [but this] does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice,'” the CABL pointed out.

An affirmation of slavery and prison labor

“This wording may seem nuanced,” according to CABL, “but technically it…permit[s] both slavery and involuntary servitude in a certain circumstance…the current constitution says that slavery is explicitly prohibited.”

CABL suggested lawmakers take the time to get the language right although that suggestion is moot if the amendment is approved. The voters decided it wasn’t. CABL said no matter how the voters decide, “nothing will change.”

That seems insightful on one level. Currently, for example, the law states that “slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, except in the latter case as punishment for a crime.

The proposal Rep. Jordan authored would have removed the phrase “except in the latter case as punishment for a crime.” What the state representative wished was to add a clause saying that the measure “does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.”

Slavery banned under the law

Slavery is currently banned under the law, Jordan says. However, the use of the word “latter” in the existing law means that “involuntary servitude” is still technically legal as punishment, begging the question if the state of Louisiana did in fact vote to keep slavery.

Although there is “almost no difference” between slavery and involuntary servitude, Jordan has said the removal of the word “latter” would have left it saying that slavery and involuntary servitude are both permitted for the “lawful administration of criminal justice.”

Today, there is a referendum in five states about 150 years after the abolition of slavery.

Prison Labor
Prison Work Crew. Credit: Doris Ullman, CCO-1.0 /Wikimedia Commons

Slavery and prison reform

One interpretation of the quarrel over this Louisiana referendum is that it is a clash between prison reformers and those who wish to be tough on crime. These issues are often folded into rallying around the emotional cause of abolishing slavery once again.

Though there are some honorable and dedicated people, movement in the U.S. for prison reform is still rather weak. Often, those who say they are prison abolitionists are the same government lobbyists who don’t want to disturb anything or anybody.

Gillian Brockell of The Washington Post, explained that the Louisiana referendum issue around “slavery” is really about the contemporary conditions in Louisiana prisons. In Louisiana, the ritualized abuse of prison labor is very real.

According to a 2022 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, conditions can be startling. Angola is a prison only for men. The nation’s largest maximum-security prison is situated on eighteen thousand acres of land that was originally the site of slave plantations.

Today, incarcerated workers farm crops, including cotton, corn, soybeans, and sugarcane, for only two cents an hour. That condition is the same, however, for prison labor regardless of race or ethnicity.

Reforming the Middle Passage

Perennially, discussions of prison conditions as led by certain activists are mixed up with voting rights. Norris Henderson, founder of Voters Organized to Educate and Voices of the Experienced, which have the same acronym “VOTE”, has written about Angola Prison for the Marshall Project, a non-profit center for journalism regarding criminal justice.

The activist has been part of the movement to register prisoners as voters and previously organized a presidential town hall meeting at Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania as well.

The St. Louis public defender and attorney Adofo Minka, who worked many years in Jackson, Mississippi, is a critic of this type of movement.

Mississippi’s kindred spirit to Angola is the state penitentiary known as “Parchman Farm.” In and out of jails and prisons regularly for his job, Minka is among the class of attorneys appointed for the indigent.

A movement that makes demands on nobody

Minka has argued in a series of articles over the last two years focused on both the states of Mississippi and Missouri that such prison reform activists are often an appendage of the government.

Writing perennially against the Black political class and independent of both Democrats and Republicans, Minka says prison reform activists “make demands on nobody.”

He has also argued that the desire to make prisons “more humane” is like wishing for “more efficient plumbing for the Middle Passage.”

George Austin and Henry Laurens and George Appleby slave trader advertisement. Charleston SC newspaper.
George Austin and Henry Laurens and George Appleby slave trader advertisement. Charleston SC newspaper / Public Domain

The Middle Passage is a reference to conditions at the bottom of slave ships as Africans crossed the Atlantic in chains.

Furthermore, he is an advocate of direct democracy as influenced by the Caribbean scholar CLR James’s interpretation of the classical Athenian city-state. Attorney Minka may express the Ancient Greek sentiment of law against tyrants.

Slavery and involuntary servitude

Dynamically, with “slavery” on the ballot, many infrequent voters were mobilized to join those more motivated, either due to racism or opposition to it,

Either way, voting didn’t abolish slavery the first time, and it won’t free prisoners in the future.

African Americans are often told or believe that people died for the right to vote and in pursuit of freedom. Many elderly, especially African Americans who remember past struggles, religiously vote, but feel it is of no consequence for changing American politics fundamentally.

Family of slaves in Georgia
Family of slaves in Georgia circa 1850 / Public Domain

According to NPR, sixty-seven percent of eligible voters cast their ballot in the Biden-Trump 2020 presidential election. Eighty million people did not. Approximately one-fourth of the country is not apathetic.

Certainly, everyone who votes is not a scholar of public policy. Can an enlarged concept of citizenship actually overcome these foolish ballot initiatives?

Beyond slavery in African American history

Following the abolition of slavery, there were Black codes amongst African- American restricting independent employment and self-defense. After those, were the Jim Crow laws from 1896-1965.

Jim Crow was not merely about racial segregation which included separate public accommodations like restaurants, restrooms, schools, and pools. It was also used for forced labor in prisons, and sharecropping was not much more than that.

During the Black codes and Jim Crow laws, these statutes were reinforced by lynching. Darlene Clark Hine’s African Americans: A Concise History, documents three thousand lynchings of African Americans from 1880 to 1930. White supremacist terror groups like the Ku Klux Klan carried out these repressive acts. This is not irrelevant to recent Louisiana history.

Equal opportunity and the Ku Klux Klan

The modern civil rights (1955-1965) and Black Power movements (1965-1975) brought about many social and cultural changes. These included full citizenship and voting rights in 1964 to 1965 and equal opportunity in employment for African Americans.

Institutional racism is still troublesome. Racial disparities in policing and incarceration indicate this. Increasing diversity in the hierarchies of public, corporate, and social institutions creates many contradictions.

Yet racism still exists even though African Americans are now middle-class and professionals. So one has to wonder if Louisiana was still confused over slavery and abolition.

Most would say not really, as Louisiana remains home to the most prominent politician associated with a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States.

David Duke and White Louisiana Voters

Long after the civil rights and Black Power movements came to an end, David Duke held office in the Louisiana House of Representatives from 1989 to 1992. In 1990, the politician received forty-three percent of the vote in a losing campaign for U.S. Senator.

In 1991, the non-partisan primary for governor saw Duke come in a close second. He had thirty-two percent of the vote. In the general election against Edwin Edwards, Duke lost badly.

There was a nationwide effort against Duke. Still, he received thirty-eight percent of the vote. In subsequent campaign efforts, as late as 2016, his influence declined to three percent.

David Duke and the KKK in the 1970s
David Duke and the KKK in the 1970s / Public Domain

However, these numbers suggest that among the white middle age and elderly, voting for a white supremacist for office has been a serious consideration for thirty-two to forty-three percent of the population. This is so even in the recent post-civil rights past of Louisiana.

Duke was part of the mobilization of the “Unite the Right” rally, famous for its tiki torches, in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Antifa protesters confronted this rally.

Good and bad people on both sides of the “slavery” referendum

Donald Trump once famously said, “There were ‘good people’ and ‘bad people’ on both sides.” To be sure, there were good people and bad people on both sides of this recent referendum.

Given the crafting of most referendums, it is difficult to know the ethics of their writers. Even more impossible is knowing what was on voters’ minds. Thus, what remains unclear  beyond the electric issue of “slavery” is whether Louisiana voters thought they were affirming racism or not. Likewise, if they voted to fight crime or support prisoners.

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