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California voters may follow Alabama’s lead in banning slavery

FILE - Democratic Assembly members Lori Wilson, of Suisun City, left, talks with state Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman, of Stockton, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. California voters may soon decide whether to remove an exemption for involuntary servitude in the state constitution under a proposal the state Senate approved Thursday. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
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FILE - Democratic Assembly members Lori Wilson, of Suisun City, left, talks with state Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman, of Stockton, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. California voters may soon decide whether to remove an exemption for involuntary servitude in the state constitution under a proposal the state Senate approved Thursday. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

California voters will decide in November whether to remove an exemption for involuntary servitude from the state constitution under a proposal the state Legislature just approved. Alabama voters abolished slavery this way back in 2022. The polls opened shortly after Alabama Public Radio premiered its award-winning documentary “No Stone Unturned: Preserving Slave cemeteries in Alabama,” which was honored with an international “Gabriel” award, a national “Edward R. Murrow” award, and a national “Salute to Excellence” award from the National Association of Black Journalists. Alabama’s anti-slavery amendment also focused on what was, at that time, involuntary servitude among prison inmates.

In California and many other states, the state constitution bans involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime. The proposed amendment would change the constitution to say that "slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited." Proponents of the measure want the state to outlaw forced prison labor in which people who are incarcerated are often paid less than $1 an hour to fight fires, clean prison cells and do yardwork at cemeteries.

"Incarcerated people's relationship to work should not be one of exploitation and little-to-no agency," said Democratic Assemblymember Lori Wilson, who authored the proposal. "Let us take this step to restore some dignity and humanity and prioritize rehabilitative services for the often-forgotten individuals behind bars."

The proposed constitutional amendment passed overwhelmingly in the Senate, with a few Republicans voting against it. The state Assembly quickly gave the measure final approval in the Legislature, meaning it now heads to voters.

The proposal is a part of a package of reparations bills introduced by the California Legislative Black Caucus. Lawmakers announced the package earlier this year as part of an effort for the state to atone and offer redress for a history of racism and discrimination against Black Californians.

California has a long legacy of involuntary servitude that still lingers today with people who are incarcerated who are forced to work often facing the threat of punishment if they refuse, said state Senator Steven Bradford, a Los Angeles-area Democrat.

"Today, we have the opportunity to take a step in the right direction towards ending that legacy," he said.

The state Senate rejected a similar proposal in 2022. Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom's administration opposed the measure, warning it could cost taxpayers billions of dollars if the state had to pay people in prison a $15 hourly minimum wage.

Several states along with Alabama, including Oregon, Tennesse aend Vermont, have in recent years approved amendments to their constitutions to remove slavery and involuntary servitude exceptions.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has a similar exception to California for slavery and involuntary servitude as a "punishment for crime" if the person has been "duly convicted." Democrats in Congress have failed in recent years to pass a proposal to remove the exemption.

State Senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, a Democrat representing Culver City near Los Angeles, said the California proposal is a "long-overdue" reform and that it is unacceptable for people who are incarcerated to be put to work for such low pay.

"It undermines everyone's ability to earn a living wage in California," she said. "It also normalizes exploitation. It normalizes indignity and inhumanity."

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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  • Before the Civil War, the state of Alabama was home to an estimated thirty three thousand slave holders. Local historians say one of them was John Welch Prewitt. He set aside two acres that became known as the Old Prewitt Slave Cemetery. The site may hold up to two hundred unmarked graves. Former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Deontay Wilder lives next door.
  • The thirteenth amendment did away with slavery in the United States one hundred and fifty seven years ago. Alabama voters may take similar action next month. The state’s Constitution still allows involuntary servitude. An estimated four hundred thousand slaves were held in Alabama before they were finally freed in 1865. APR spoke with the descendants of some of these people. They talked about trying to find the burial sites of their ancestors, and facing roadblocks not shared by their white neighbors.
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  • The Alabama Public Radio newsroom spent nine months investigating efforts to preserve slave cemeteries in the state. An estimated four hundred thousand captives were held in Alabama before the Civil War. Historians say many of these newly freed people stayed in the state following emancipation in 1863. APR spoke with some of their descendants and heard about problems in locating the burial sites of their ancestors. Today, we present the conclusion of our series titled “No Stone Unturned.” One issue with preserving these cemeteries may be getting people, both black and white, to talk about it.
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