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Price Abolition Day Remarks

December 6, 2015
Price Abolition Day Remarks

Congressman David E. Price gave the following remarks at the Raleigh Abolition Day event, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

I am honored to be here to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which formally abolished slavery in the United States. Thanks to Judge Wynn and others who have organized this program.

Along with the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed citizenship and equal protection under the law, and the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave former slaves the right to vote, the Thirteenth Amendment was a foundational step in the struggle for equal rights for all Americans.

This commemoration is a celebration of this great achievement, and of the broader struggle for equal rights and equal dignity that has defined our nation’s history.  Yet it is also a reminder that the ratification of these amendments wasn’t just the end of a dark and deadly struggle; it was the beginning of a new struggle that extends to this very day.

In fact, the struggle was foreshadowed on December 4, 1865 the day the North Carolina legislature ratified the amendment. The House vote was 100-4, but that did not signify universal acceptance. Legislators knew that approval was necessary to gain readmission to the Union, and they hoped for an early end to Reconstruction and federal control of the state. And immediately after voting to ratify the amendment, the passed a resolution expressing the view that it did “not enlarge the powers of Congress to legislate on the subject of freed men within the states”, i.e. did not authorize civil rights laws.

That was exactly the same question that was still being debated 100 years later, which I remember as a staff member in the U.S. Senate, when the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were being defended as necessary to implement the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution!

For more than a century after the Civil War, local, state, and federal lawmakers imposed laws designed to circumvent the hard-fought gains of emancipation and perpetuate a system that made African Americans second-class citizens. Black Americans faced daily harassment and violence, particularly in the South. They found it hard to get jobs, harder to find equal justice in the courts, and almost impossible to vote.

In the middle part of the last century, just short of the hundred-year mark, this system began to break down, thanks in large part to the courageous efforts of American heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King, my congressional colleague John Lewis, and Rosa Parks, who sixty years ago last week made a courageous stand for humanity on a Montgomery city bus.

I was fortunate enough to come of age politically as this upheaval spread across the land, first as an undergraduate in Chapel Hill, where the focal point was theaters and restaurants, and then from a Senate office a few years later as the federal government finally responded. For my generation and, one hopes, the generations that have followed, the lesson must be that constitutional and legal protections can never be taken for granted. They must be interpreted, implemented, and enforced by each new generation, and in this struggle, politics and government often make the crucial difference. We must engage politically, and in this democracy we must make government the instrument of our common purpose.

This is a struggle that never ends. Whether in Ferguson, Chicago, or right here in North Carolina, black Americans still face daily discrimination, harassment, and violence. Every American should feel protected, not threatened, by law enforcement, and we must ensure that fair and equal justice is accorded to anyone accused of a crime. 

Too many African Americans, and other Americans, are still stuck in a cycle of generational poverty that makes it impossible to fulfill the promise of the American dream. We must redouble our efforts to provide support to low-income Americans so that they can go to college, find a good job, buy a house, and build a brighter future for their children.

And perhaps most discouragingly, our state has enacted restrictions that make it harder to register and vote, laws that in their effects seem eerily similar to the laws that the civil rights leaders fought so hard to cast off.

So I join you here today to celebrate the anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment’s ratification, to acknowledge the tireless efforts of the leaders who fought so hard to realize its promise, and to join with you in redoubled efforts to ensure “liberty and justice for all”.