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Thirteenth Amendment Ratification Is Social Change Long Overdue

Danny Galvin |
February 19, 2013 | 11:27 p.m. PST

Growing up on the grounds of a former slave market, I have a very different perspective on the issue of racism in America than most of my peers. In Memphis, Tennessee, there was a running joke whenever someone brought up the topic of racism: “You think it’s bad here? Mississippi hasn’t even ratified the 13th amendment!” The fact that this amendment was accumulating mold and dust somewhere in the archives of Mississippi’s capital wasn’t a mystery, nor, do I believe, was it born from completely benign neglect. The decades it took to ratify should also not be overlooked.
It took a Lincoln movie, but citizens stepped up and pressured politicians to officially abolish slavery at last. (Robert Claypool, Creative Commons)
It took a Lincoln movie, but citizens stepped up and pressured politicians to officially abolish slavery at last. (Robert Claypool, Creative Commons)
To call this a mere political “oversight,” as the Huffington Post does, is naive. This wasn’t a filing error or bureaucratic mismanagement of some paperwork; the amendment was purposely shelved in the past and ignored, though not forgotten, until now. If young Memphians knew that Mississippi had not ratified this amendment, shouldn’t politicians, (hopefully) well-versed in the political history and status of their state, have known also?
Furthermore, the amendment would have flown through Mississippi's Congress at any point during the last 100 years. Any dissent demonstrated by a politician would have been met with extreme backlash. Imagine what would happen today if a Mississippi state senator voted against ratification. The national media would have a field day, tearing into the delusional and racist politician with the gleeful fervor of a great white smelling a drop of blood in the ocean. Career suicide may not even be a powerful enough expression to accurately capture the political carnage that would inevitably ensue. So, if the politicians knew and the process would have been nearly effortless, why did it take two fans of the movie Lincoln to generate the momentum necessary for ratification to be accomplished?
The American South is a place of slow and unwilling progress, occasionally marked by outbursts of extreme resistance. Following the Civil War, the general reluctance to change the status quo combined with a history of horrible atrocities made it a leaking barrel of gunpowder for human rights campaigns. Events like Rosa Park’s stand or Emmett Till’s murder light the trail of powder that blows the entire barrel, opening up the possibility of change.
However, as racism shifts from the visible barriers of “white” and “colored” to less detectable practices like racially-skewed hiring patterns, more and more responsibility is placed on individuals to demand change from the governing powers. Two citizens demanding change—albeit a symbolic one—demonstrates an initiative that needs to be more commonplace in our society. Politicians have a responsibility to their constituents, but if this incident demonstrates anything, it is that there are certain problems they will only acknowledge when confronted by these constituents.
Beyond just an anecdote, this story is another glaring example of why people need to take action against any injustice that they see because the government—and thus the entire legal system—answers to the people.
Reach Contributor Danny Galvin here.



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