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Whipped to Shackled


When the thirteenth amendment was implemented into the Constitution, the African-American community was freed from one oppression (slavery) and promptly moved to the shackles of mass incarceration. The roots of these racist issues can be traced back to Abraham Lincoln, prior to even the Civil War. Lincoln’s famous speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Speech, are commemorated on both sides of his memorial walls, framing the huge statue of himself behind the classical columns. While Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery, we are in need of a modern Emancipation resulting in the freedom of the currently oppressed African-American community. Lincoln’s efforts freed the slaves from the whips of their owners; however, the thirteenth amendment shackled them to the cells of our prisons. Urban studies academic, Michael Javen Fortner presents historical relation of slavery and the Civil War to Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights movement in “the late 1960s and early 1970s… during which the seeds of mass incarceration were sown…. into neat, imprecise narratives that render black politics invisible and relegate white politics to the stifling abyss of whiteness” (15). Fortner also recognizes author Michelle Alexander describing mass incarceration as the “new Jim Crow” in her novel, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Elucidating this harsh truth, Alexander writes: “mass incarceration—[was] planted during the Civil Rights movement itself, when it became clear that the old caste system was crumbling and a new one would have to take its place” (22). Basically, the fundamental structures of society were crumbling before the white man’s eyes and the only way they knew how to handle it was through criminalization of the black man. As a matter of fact, historian and activist, Heather Ann Thompson, repeatedly comments on this Jim Crow thesis, claiming that the contemporary criminal justice system emerged to stabilize a social order upset by Civil Rights activism and maintain a racial caste (34). Consequently, in order to understand the role Abraham Lincoln played in mass incarceration, we must follow the long line of oppressions the African-American community has had to endure.

The practice of mass incarceration is rooted in the details of racism and racial profiling is a prevalent role within our justice system. Nonetheless, the biggest question is why does this nation continue to declare that racism has been erased from the confines of our government, when there have been key loopholes and agendas created to specifically stop the African-American community from thriving? In order to recognize mass incarceration as a severely prominent portion of our daily lives, we must alter the discourse around the criminalization of an entire community. Hence, this issue must be traced back to Abraham Lincoln in order to push for a modern day Emancipation Proclamation.

Memorialized Past and Memory:

Abraham Lincoln is often credited for the freedom of slaves due to the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. However, because there is uncertainty as to what Lincoln would have done after the Civil War with the assimilation of African-Americans and Whites, the Lincoln Memorial maintains an ironic location for moments throughout history. An example of Lincoln’s swayed opinion on freedom, is a letter in 1862 from the President to Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Tribune, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery” (“A LETTER FROM PRESIDENT LINCOLN”). Presumably, Lincoln did advocate emancipation; however, he did so to preserve the Union and not to defend the immorality of slavery.

Thereby, as noted in cultural historian, Scott A. Sandage’s academic article, “A Marble House Divided: The Lincoln Memorial, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Politics of Memory, 1939-1963”, architect Henry Bacon wanted the memorial to represent “common ground for the meeting of the North and South. By emphasizing his saving the union you appeal to both sections. By saying nothing about slavery you avoid the rubbing of old sores’” (141). Hence, Sandage’s academic paper reveals that the Memorial itself memorializes Lincoln while conversely ignoring the greatest impact he made for our nation. Secondly, “conceived and dedicated as holy ground, the Lincoln Memorial became, as early as 1922, racially contested ground. By chance or design, the shrine straddled boundaries: between North and South, between black and white, and between official and vernacular memory… Activists gradually learned… using mass rallies instead of pickets… alluding to Lincoln in publicity and oratory, and insisting on using the memorial rather than another site” (Sandage 143-152). Therefore, the common historical perception of Lincoln as the savior for slaves coincides with the Civil Rights protests, strategically located at his memorial. Moreover, the current consequence of the various struggles African Americans have faced since the creation of this nation is the unfortunate problem of mass incarceration.

The Man That Met The Legend:

The Lincoln Memorial is important because it memorializes an iconic figure in our nation that attempted to push us towards progress. It is an influential reminder of the man that took strides in this country to ensure basic freedoms for all men and women regardless of their race, even if that meant war within the nation. The lengths in which Abraham Lincoln dared to go through to end slavery was astounding. While he did not particularly want a war, he wanted the nation to be united, even if that meant having to win a war to abolish slavery rather than settle with the Confederate States seceding. This demonstrated to all Americans that victory and progress can also mean sacrifice, but with perseverance, the greater good can win. Therefore, the greatest value that the Lincoln Memorial represents is unity of the nation. The Gettysburg Address, inscribed into the wall on the left and his Second Inaugural Speech to the right both handle the matter of unity and declaring, the then, slaves and whites equals as free men. The location itself on the national mall adds to the unity aspect because of the classical columns with the massive statue of Lincoln being historically similar to Greek shrines of Gods and important figures, whereas the entirety of the context of Lincoln’s speeches are of unity and equality rather than superiority. For example, in Lincoln’s 1854 speech in Peoria, Illinois, he stated, “Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man's nature -- opposition to it is in his love of justice. These principles are an eternal antagonism; and when brought into collision so fiercely, as slavery extension brings them, shocks, and throes, and convulsions must ceaselessly follow. Repeal the Missouri Compromise -- repeal all compromises -- repeal the declaration of independence -- repeal all past history, you still can not repeal human nature. It still will be the abundance of man's heart, that slavery extension is wrong; and out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth will continue to speak” (United States. National Park Service. "Peoria Speech”). As a result, we can conclude that Lincoln’s ultimate end goal was to establish unity across the nation between the North and the South as well as with the whites and the blacks.

Yet, I find that the locus does not represent the actual event of slavery nor the Civil War, but rather, there was intent to not represent slavery but link the North and South with the man that tried to link them. With Lincoln being depicted as this huge statute, likely to symbolize the gravity of his impact on the nation, it seems more likely that his memorial is focused on the man rather than his accomplishments. Rather than acknowledging the Civil War and the awful extent in which slavery took place within the South, the memorial hints at unity but dismisses the very division of its people. Sadly, dating even before slavery, we can pinpoint the eras in which African-Americans went from one form of oppression to the next.

Racism Bleeding into Pop Culture - Newspapers, Film, and More:

Critically acclaimed director Ava DuVernay was applauded by many for her documentary, 13th. Vogue writer, Julia Felsenthal, wrote that the documentary traced “ a line from the abolition of slavery to the present day, from The Birth of a Nation (the 1915 D.W. Griffith original, that is) to Trayvon Martin, and convincingly makes the case that mass incarceration has replaced institutionalized slavery as a nationally supported way of subjugating and disenfranchising African-Americans.” (Felsenthal). Featuring New Jersey Senator, Cory Booker explained that “right now, we now have more African-Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves back in 1850s” (13th). When the Civil War ended and slaves were legally freed from their owners, the nation struggled with where to place the four million people that were formerly property and with how to address the tattered southern economy (13th). Thus, the African-American community was arrested for minor crimes such as loitering or vagrancy in order to provide labor and aide in the rehabilitation of the economic situation in the South. For instance, Heather Ann Thompson presents in her research on national crime that “[the] perception [of crime] was not necessarily reality, and historians must more carefully examine how the politics of crime and punishment played out in the postwar period to determine that reality” (727).

Ergo, a cultural phenomenon occurred after the Emancipation Proclamation “freed” slaves, criminalizing the black man into a dangerous figure. The greatest example that exhibits this is the disgustingly racist film, The Birth of A Nation (1915), also referred to in DuVernay’s 13th. Although it was credited for its political commentary, the movie more accurately described what “many whites wanted to tell about the Civil War and its aftermath: to erase defeat and to take out of it a sort of martyrdom.” (13th). While watching the film, every image portraying an African-American has them acting “demeaned, [and] animal-like” (13th). As a matter of fact, I would argue that The Birth of A Nation is directly responsible for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, glorifying membership and endorsing criminalization of the black male.

Beginnings of a New Oppression:

From the 1880s through the 1960s, a majority of American states enforced segregation through “Jim Crow” laws, which was a slang term for a black man; “from Delaware to California, and from North Dakota to Texas, many states (and cities, too) could impose legal punishments on people for consorting with members of another race. The most common types of laws forbade intermarriage and ordered business owners and public institutions to keep their black and white clientele separated” (United States. National Park Service. “Jim Crow Laws”). Essentially, Jim Crow laws were based on white supremacy as well as a reaction to Reconstruction and the end of slavery. In the depression-racked 1890s, racism appealed to whites who feared losing their jobs to blacks. Newspapers fed the bias of white readers by playing up (sometimes even fabricating) black crimes. Furthermore, “unwritten rules barred blacks from white jobs in New York and kept them out of white stores in Los Angeles. Humiliation was about the best treatment blacks who broke such rules could hope for. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which revived in 1915, used venom and violence to keep blacks supposedly, in their place” (Costly). Comparably, political science academic, Lisa Miller points out that “while scholars have been attentive to the role that primarily white victims’ groups have played in the politics of crime and punishment, they have far less to say about the political agitation by groups representing minority victims.” (806). Thus, the Civil Rights movement emerged from the terrible acts of the Jim Crow laws that promoted racism, prejudice, and segregation against blacks.

MLK Jr, the modern Lincoln:

The ties between the Lincoln Memorial and several Civil Rights protests are too close to ignore. For example, Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech began with a similar rhetorical device as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, using “Five score years ago” juxtaposed with “Four score and seven years ago”. Sandage considers this to have been a “ritual strategy at the Lincoln Memorial had advantages, both in getting a message to the public and in broadening participation.” (159). The connections to the Lincoln Memorial tether greatest to the Civil Rights movement, which produced much backlash and therefore unjust legislation, masking inequality even further within our nation. In a sociological forum, Becky Pettit and Bryan L. Sykes argue that Civil Rights legislation lead to legalized exclusion, “exclusion from federally sponsored surveys of the American population - that affects both statistical portraits of inequality and our understanding of the impact of civil rights legislation” (591). Similarly, Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates points out that “from the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s, America’s incarceration rate doubled… In absolute terms, America’s prison and jail population from 1970 until today has increased sevenfold, from some 300,000 people to 2.2 million… In 2000, one in 10 black males between the ages of 20 and 40 was incarcerated—10 times the rate of their white peers. In 2010, a third of all black male high-school dropouts between the ages of 20 and 39 were imprisoned, compared with only 13 percent of their white peers” (“The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration”). With these statistical points in mind, the greatest question being assessed is the civil rights legislation over 50 years after the fact which now affects the “prison system on accounts of American racial inequality have… reached historic proportions.” (Petit and Sykes, 592). How can a nation so proud of it’s diversity be so blindly prejudice to an entire community of it’s people?

Servitude to Prison Cells:

The African-American communities suffer from children growing up in broken households, hence heightening crime rates; thus, with most of the African-Americans being sent to prisons, the involvement from their communities (to including voting, volunteering, or general voicing) is stripped and overshadowed by the white majority. With the continuation of mass incarceration, it is probable that the racial tensions will continue within the nation, further regressing us to the similar hate rhetoric used prior to and during the Civil Rights movement. Allowing racial profiling and racial criminalization of African-Americans, particularly African-American men, is dividing the nation and leading to xenophobia in the name of “differences” or safety of one’s own race. Confronting the issue of mass incarceration means altering one’s viewpoint of racism within our nation today. Civil Rights legislation was supposed to promise “greater racial equality in variety of domains including education, economic opportunity, and voting.” (Pettit and Sykes, 589). Pettit and Sykes explicitly note that “the passage of the laws was framed against a backdrop of acute racial inequality in key domains of social and economic life, a portrait rendered from lived experience, media coverage, and evidence from surveys and censuses of the U.S. population.” (589).

Hence, challenging the issue of racism playing an evident role within our judicial system may raise awareness to those that could institute change. Mass incarceration and racial profiling have been embedded into our society since the thirteenth amendment was written with the loophole that “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.” (U.S. Constitution); thus, the amendment formally abolished slavery but enabled whites to claim blacks as criminals, ensuring servitude to prisons. Thereby, the correlation between the memorial of Lincoln and mass incarceration is that the country refuses to acknowledge that the oppression has not truly ended but has only changed form. Today, the term “slave” has merely been switched to “criminal”.

The prevalent matter is that an entire race of people are still being discriminated against in this nation within social constructs of society and the skewed lens of our legal system; bringing awareness to the issues revolving around racism, racial profiling, mass incarceration, and criminalization could help find a means to an end. Therefore, the inevitable consequences of mass incarceration include the fact that racism prevails, human rights and equality are thrown out the window meanwhile an entire race of people are oppressed under circumstances of the white supremacy. Seven score and thirteen years ago, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed as an executive order by President Abraham Lincoln to abolish the acts of enslavement; yet, in the year 2016, we enslave a population of our country to the same oppression that began it all : racism.

Works Cited