“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.” When the South lost the Civil War, they lost their slaves. These slaves were a huge part of their economic production system, and now they were free.
All four million of them. What can you do with all these people? How can the South rebuild their economy? This loophole, the one that basically said slavery was legal as a punishment for crime in the 13th Amendment was instantly exploited. The movie, Birth of a Nation, was not only directly responsible for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, but it was also responsible for the thorough criminalization of African Americans. Released in 1915, it portrayed African Americans as villains who take over the South and establish laws that force white people to salute to black soldiers and allow interracial marriage. (Birth of a Nation, 1915) From the time of Reconstruction to World War II, there were lynchings. Hundreds of African Americans were murdered, not unlike the so-called “witches” that were drowned/burned under the idea that they had done something criminal. When it became unacceptable to engage in this kind of open terrorism, it turned into something more legal: Jim Crow laws and segregation. These laws were passed that permanently placed African Americans at the bottom of society.
Civil rights activists began to be portrayed in the media as criminal, people who were deliberately violating these segregation laws.”For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.
‘” – MLK, Letter from a Birmingham JailCivil rights activists completely changed the notion of criminality. Getting arrested used to be a black person’s worst nightmare, and while it still is for many African Americans, these activists actually defined a movement around getting arrested. They completely turned it on its head.
(13th, 2016)The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act was basically an admission, one that said that, even though slavery ended in December 1865, black people’s’ rights were still taken away. Unfortunately, crime rates started rising around the time the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. Although it was due to demographic change (the baby boomers born after WWII were now adults), it was very easy to blame it on the Civil Rights movement. Or, more specifically, black people. At this point, politicians were basically saying that, if black people were given their rights, the nation would be repaid with crime. Throughout most of the 20th century, the prison population remained constant. It didn’t go up and it didn’t go down. But in the 1970s, that changed.
In the 1970s, an era began that is defined by the term “mass incarceration”. U.S. PRISON POPULATION1970357,292The 1970s was when Nixon ran for president on his “Law and Order” campaign. And this was when crime began to stand in for race. Part of what Nixon talked about was a war on crime, but that was one of his code words- what might be called “dog whistle” politics today- and it referred to the political movements of that time. Black Panthers, Black Power, the anti-war movement, the movement for women’s and gay liberation.
Nixon felt compelled to fight against these movements.