The story behind why Louisiana voted against a ban on slavery

Last week, Louisiana voters struck down an amendment to its constitution that would have prohibited  slavery and involuntary servitude. 

The four other states where slavery was on the ballot – Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont – approved similar referenda. . Louisiana was put in the national spotlight for rejecting the change. 

Trevor Noah did an entire sketch on “The Daily Show,” mocking Louisiana for voting “against ending slavery.” Correspondent Roy Wood Jr., who is Black, pretended to stand just over the state’s border, joking, “I’m safer here in Mississippi, which is something no Black man has ever said.”

Supporters of Amendment 7 say it’s rejection should not be interpreted  as how people in Louisiana feel about slavery, involuntary servitude or forced prison labor.

‘They confused the issue’

Louisiana missed “the opportunity to change the world for Black progress,” said Curtis Ray Davis II, executive director for the abolitionist group Decarcerate Louisiana.  A combination of misinformation, confusing ballot language and the lack of support from the bill’s sponsor made it so people who were against slavery didn’t know how to vote, he said. 

“It’s a form of voter suppression,” Davis said. “They confused the issue so people didn’t know what they were voting on.”

Davis served nearly 26 years in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He said he worked in the cotton fields on the sprawling prison property after he received a life sentence for second-degree murder in 1990. He was later allowed to plea down to manslaughter to be released from prison in 2016. Davis maintains his innocence.

While incarcerated, Davis wrote the book, “Slave State: Evidence of Apartheid in America.” Once released, he began fighting to remove slavery and involuntary servitude from the state’s constitution.

“It’s really unfortunate what happened with this constitutional amendment,” said Chris Kaiser, ACLU of Louisiana advocacy director. “I think a lot of people in the state really did want to voice dissent about the way the state uses involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime, and the way that this language was amended during the legislative process made it quite confusing. So I don’t think anybody can look at what happened in the election as a referendum on the use of prison labor in the state.”

‘One of the most dangerous bills’

The original version of the amendment would have simply said slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited. It would have struck out the exception in Louisiana’s constitution that allowed involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. 

In May 2021, when Rep.  Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, first brought the bill to the legislature, Rep.  Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, called it “one of the most dangerous bills we’ve seen this session.” Seabaugh said he was “afraid this might open the door to a legal challenge for every felony conviction in the state of Louisiana, and that’s just not a can of worms I’m willing to open.” The bill died in a House committee without a vote being taken.

Representative Edmond Jordan

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