Black voters in Louisiana ’embarrassed’ by state’s failure to pass anti-slavery amendment


Black voters in Louisiana are confused. Many are ashamed. Some are angry. Everyone seems concerned about how their status is perceived after a constitutional amendment to eliminate slavery and indentured servitude failed spend in the November elections.

That may be, in part, because the legislator who wrote the bill to allow voting changed direction and worked to kill it.

Four other states, Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont, have passed similar legislation, effectively ending “slave labor” in prisons. Louisiana, however, did not vote in favor of the constitutional amendment, which had been introduced by Rep. Edmond Jordan, a black politician known for fighting for black causes, such as limit the immunity of police officers in demands

Representative Edmond Jordan.Louisiana House of Representatives

In an unusual twist, Jordan launched a campaign last summer to have an amendment of his own failed. His original bill read: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited.” With that language, it was clear that the bill would have removed the 138-year exception in the Louisiana Constitution that allowed involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime.

But Jordan agreed to an addendum to the bill, which said that the part of the constitution that “prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude” did not “apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.” That section, Jordan said, created confusion for him and voters and raised some questions about whether the second part of the bill was “canceling the first part.”

“Are they trying to trick us into voting for slavery?” asked John Miles, a 41-year-old black trucker in Monroe. “Why would they make it so confusing?” He said he voted no for lack of clarity.

Ultimately, the amendment it has failedwith 61% voting no.

Jordan agreed with the amendment not passing, even though many black voters disagreed. The measure received more “no” than “yes” votes in the 64 parishes in the state. Some of those voters, like Todd L. Sterling of Baton Rouge, say passing the measure would have represented progress rather than leaving slavery and indentured servitude in its place. Its failure means remains of a time that many would like to forget.

Todd L. Sterling
Todd L. SterlingCourtesy of Todd Sterling

“It was a tough bill to read if you hadn’t done a little homework,” said Sterling, owner of Alpha Media and Public Relations, an advertising agency in the state capital. “It really ties into the penal system in Louisiana, renting people out, which is modern day slavery. If I weren’t aware of the issue and weren’t familiar with the way the penal system treats incarcerated people like slaves, I really wouldn’t think it’s a big deal.”

But it is in Louisiana, where inmates perform “slave labor” at their state penitentiary, nicknamed Angola for the old plantation on which the prison was built. according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Global Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, inmates there earn between 2 cents and 20 cents a year. hourwith many working in the fields growing crops like sugarcane, corn, soybeans, and, yes, cotton.

And black inmates make up 74% of Angola’s prison population.

“Field workers work with limited access to water, minimal rest, and no toilets, under the supervision of armed correctional officers on horseback,” the ACLU report says.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, nicknamed Angola.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary, nicknamed Angola. Patrick Semansky/AP

“And that’s why this bill was important,” added Sterling, 56. “Of course, I voted for the bill because it was a long time before we eliminated any possibility of what is happening in Angola. That should have been a dunk. But now we are the only state that has something like this on the books… And that is embarrassing.”

Jordan said he wanted his bill to fail so he could resubmit it in the next legislative session, in April 2023, in easy-to-understand language. He feared there was potential for a legislator to use the confusing language as an opportunity to legalize slavery in Louisiana and maintain indentured servitude.

“I wasn’t even going to take the risk of ambiguous language being used and taken to court to try to do the opposite of what we intended,” Jordan said. “Look at it this way: If the amendment failed, on November 9, we would be no worse off than we were on November 8. But there is a chance that we could have been worse off had it passed. … So we need to go back to the drawing board and make sure the language is clear so everyone knows exactly what the intent is.”

Yet some voters remain stumped and discouraged that, even with the language, a measure that began to end slavery and indentured servitude failed to pass.

“It’s embarrassing. It’s terrible,” said Robert Diggs, an Atlanta attorney from Lafayette, Louisiana. “I don’t see how there can be an excuse for confusing language in a bill, especially one as important as this one. This needs to be corrected as soon as possible.” as soon as possible because slavery in any form of indentured servitude should not be legal anywhere in this country, let alone in the world.”

Curt Simmons, an international professor of foreign languages, said he paused when he got to the part of the ballot asking about the controversial amendment. Simmons had recently returned to Shreveport from Prague and was unaware of the problems.

“My first thought was: ‘Am I reading this right?’ I mean, are we talking about slavery in 2022? Simmons said. “I looked around, like ‘Anyone else see this?’ Seeing that on the ballot was shocking.”

What made things even worse was that I wasn’t sure how to vote. Finally, he said, he voted “yes. I was afraid that a ‘no’ vote would support keeping it as it is, and I don’t agree with that at all. It’s very sad and it makes me angry that we are still dealing with this. How can this be?”

Slavery in America was abolished in 1865 with the 13th Amendment. But there is a exception for slavery as “punishment for the crime.” That exception has been languishing in state constitutions for more than 100 years.

Curtis Ray Davis II, Executive Director of the Abolitionist cluster Released in Louisiana, he spent nearly 26 years in an Angola prison for a murder he said he did not commit. During his tenure, he wrote the book “Slave State: Evidence for Apartheid in America.” He has been a social justice leader since his release in 2016.

Davis told the Louisiana Illuminator that not passing the amendment was a “missed opportunity to change the world for the advancement of blacks.” He added that the garbled language was a “form of voter suppression.”

“They mixed up the issue so people wouldn’t know what they were voting on,” Davis told the Louisiana Illuminator.

Judy Reese Morse.
Judy Reese Morse.Courtesy of Judy Reese Morse

Judy Reese Morse, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the National Urban League, said she hopes Louisana’s failure to pass the amendment is not a reflection of people’s feelings about forced prison labor or slavery.

“It is absolutely critical and essential that this legislation be put back before the voters, as soon as possible, in clear language, so that everyone is clear about what they are voting for or against,” he said. “I have to believe that all people of color in Louisiana would vote to remove that from the Louisiana Constitution. And I hope that others as well, allies, who understand where we are in place and time in this country, will absolutely vote to remove that from the state constitution as well. But we won’t know until we see him again.”

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