Today’s headlines often feature the “Black Lives Matter” campaign against violence toward African-Americans. Today, on December 6, we mark the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in America – arguably the original “black lives matter” moment in our nation’s history. Yet few know, much less celebrate, the occasion. That should change, and we should embrace as a holiday this important date.
The Thirteenth Amendment made official what always should have been: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States …” With that forceful declaration, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and extended the phrase “We the People” in the Constitution’s preamble to all Americans.
Although the word “slave” appeared nowhere in the document, the original Constitution nevertheless accommodated slavery. Indeed, the Constitution based representation in the House of Representatives on the population of “free Persons” and three-fifths “of all other Persons” in each state. In other words, despite the Declaration of Independence’s majestic pronouncement that “all men are created equal,” the original Constitution took a very different view. The Thirteenth Amendment righted that wrong and made clear that black lives do matter, and matter equally.
With its passage and ratification, the Thirteenth Amendment also showed that outlawing slavery had widespread support among the states, even those in the former Confederacy. Article V of the Constitution requires amendments to be “ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several states.” The Thirteenth Amendment was put to the 36 states that existed at the time. And on Dec. 6, 1865, Georgia became the 27th state to ratify the amendment. That date marked the achievement of the supermajority needed to amend the Constitution, the amendment became effective immediately, and slavery was instantly outlawed.
Significantly, the Thirteenth Amendment stands for the proposition that all lives matter. As our Supreme Court has explained, “While the immediate concern was with African slavery, the Amendment was not limited to that. It was a charter of universal civil freedom for all persons, of whatever race, color, or estate, under the flag.”
Sadly, slavery is still with us today, in the form of human trafficking. Human trafficking victims, often from the most vulnerable segments of global society, may be kidnapped or lured into the United States with promises of job opportunities. Some are forced into prostitution, while others are made to work in sweatshops under horrendous conditions. For those individuals, too, we need to remember and recommit to the Thirteenth Amendment, our charter of universal civil freedom.
Today – the 150th anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment’s outlawing slavery in America – it is time to recognize a new holiday: Abolition of Slavery in America Day. We should begin our annual holiday season by celebrating Abolition Day – a day not just for African-Americans, but for all Americans, and a day for remembering that all lives matter.
James A. Wynn, Jr. is a Circuit Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and a former member of the North Carolina Supreme Court.