We need another Moses, like Harriet Tubman, to help lead people out of the modern slavery that is our prison system.
In the top right corner of the page of our Mennonite children’s Bible that features the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, there’s a picture of Harriet Tubman. She is another Moses, it says, because she led her people out of slavery here in the United States. It tells the story of how she organized the Underground Railroad, her secret network of trails and houses, and provided safe passage to freedom in the North.
In our Sunday school class for 5- to 7-year-olds, I told the kids about slavery—in ancient Egypt and in the recent history of the United States. I read them the story from Exodus—about Moses, about Pharaoh’s chariots and the Red Sea, about freedom on the other side, about all the freed Israelites celebrating God’s liberation, about Miriam leading the people as they danced and sang. And then I told them about Harriet Tubman, who was like Moses, liberating her people from American slavery here in the South not too long ago. “Go down, Moses, away down to Egyptland,” her people sang, “Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.” Escape from slavery meant a home in the free states, the promised land. “O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,” they sang as they followed Tubman to the North.
In the Bible story, when the Israelites arrived on the other side of the sea, they sang freedom songs and danced, with Miriam leading them with her tambourine. So I asked the kids to dance, to dance as if they were with Miriam. I asked them to dance as if they had just been liberated from slavery, dancing with Harriet Tubman, finally having made it to freedom’s land. I watched them jump, bouncing up and down, some with arms flapping, like the wings of birds, some with hands reaching as high as they could, their fingertips pulling their little bodies into the sky, stretching into openness. In a room full of exuberance, I couldn’t resist trying out my own freedom jig.
After dancing with Miriam and Tubman, the children wiggled their way back into their chairs, and we talked about the stories. With all of us seated around our table, I asked them if they had anything to share in response to the stories. Justine shot up her hand. When I nodded at her to go ahead, she took a deep breath, then let us know the system of slavery didn’t just go away. Slavery is still here, she said, and it’s called prison, where black lives are still held captive, like her uncle. The girl beside her asked why her uncle was in prison. Drugs, she said, when you are black and have drugs, you go to prison for a long time, a long long time.
Justine isn’t alone in describing our modern carceral system as the continuation of antebellum slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1865, abolished one form of slavery while authorizing a new one, an updated version: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude,” the amendment states, “shall exist within the United States.” Yet there’s an exception clause—“except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The amendment enslaves as it frees. After it was ratified, legislatures in Southern states quickly passed laws (known as “vagrancy laws,”or, even more to the point, as “Black Codes”) that supplied former masters with forced labor for their plantations. Some blacks freed by the amendment were almost immediately returned to the plantations where they had been enslaved, with only the justification for their unpaid labor changed. Penal servitude, justified by the exception clause, was the law. As Angela Y. Davis documents in her essay, “From the Prison of Slavery to the Slavery of Prison,” in Alabama “the prison population tripled between 1874 and 1877—and the increase consisted almost entirely of blacks.”
Michelle Alexander outlines the mutation of 19th-century slave society into our 20th-century system of imprisonment in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Modern presidents, from the conservative Richard Nixon to the liberal Bill Clinton, have helped preserve the legacy of racism within the justice system. Nixon’s “law and order” presidency positioned civil rights activists as threats to society, Alexander explains. According to his confidant H.R. Haldeman, Nixon believed “the whole problem is really the blacks,” and the task “is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”
Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies resulted in the exponential growth of the prison population: “Clinton escalated the drug war beyond what conservatives had imagined possible a decade earlier,” Alexander observes. And the drug war, she continues, has been set up as a battle against black lives in our society—though it now casts a wider net within nonwhite communities. “Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white,” she notes, “three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.”
“The old plantation was a prison,” writes Joy James in The New Abolitionists, “and the new prison is a plantation.”
After Justine told us about slavery and prisons and her uncle, I thanked her. Then we prayed, because that’s what pastors do when they can’t figure out what to say.
In the silence before I spoke, hope shot through my mind—a hope for another Moses, for another Tubman, for a multitude of Moseses and Tubmans to flood the streets in protest, marching us against our racist justice systems and leading us through to freedom’s land. A hope for a child in my class to one day hear God’s voice from a burning bush—or a burning building, a torched police car, a city on fire—calling her or him to organize a people for liberation.
I glanced down at the children’s Bible again. This time I imagined the face of one of the kids in my class on the page, in the top right corner, there beside Harriet Tubman, another Moses who delivered God’s people from captivity. Perhaps Justine.
Note: I changed her name to Justine. She and her parents gave me permission to tell this story.
Isaac S. Villegas is the pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship (N.C.) and serves on the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA.