Last month, 120 years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and 118 years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation making it a felony to hold workers in involuntary servitude.

Slavery in the 20th century?

* In 1979 the North Carolina advisory committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported that migrant farm workers live "in peonage, in involuntary servitude, not too far from slavery."

* During the last three years there have been 20 federal slavery convictions nationwide, 10 of them in North Carolina.

* In January, 1982, three migrant crew leaders were convicted in U.S. District Court in Raleigh on charges of conspiracy to hold workers in involuntary servitude. The incident resulted in the death of a farm worker who needed medical attention but was forced to work in the hot sun.

* Last week four persons, including one convicted in the 1982 case, were convicted by the federal court in Tampa on charges of enticing farm workers in North Carolina and Florida into slavery and conspiring to hold workers in involuntary servitude.

North Carolina's new law is designed to protect about 40,000 migrant farm workers--mostly blacks, Hispanics and Haitians--who travel from Florida to North Carolina to harvest tobacco and pick cucumbers, bell peppers and sweet potatoes.

Farm worker advocates say the century-old migrant labor system is easily abused at workers' expense. Crew leaders, federally licensed as labor contractors, import migrant workers into the state and are paid by the agricultural growers. But farm worker advocates allege that the crew leaders often withhold the workers' low wages and charge exorbitant prices for transportation, housing, food, liquor and cigarettes.

Though the North Carolina Constitution outlawed slavery in 1868, there was no statutory penalty until now. Slavery prosecutions could be undertaken only by the federal government under the Civil Rights Act of 1864.

Under the new law, slavery is punishable by a five-year prison term and a fine. Involuntary servitude is defined as unlawfully holding a person against his will by coercion or intimidation to perform work.

Despite passage of North Carolina's anti-slavery law, it remains controversial, largely because of major revisions in the original text.

The initial bill made it a crime to employ a person with knowledge that the employe is holding people in involuntary servitude. This provision, directed at farmers, was opposed by the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation, representing the state's 200,000 farmers and farm-related busineses.

W.B. Jenkins, a Farm Bureau lobbyist, called the provision "an insult to every farmer in the state." Ultimately, the section was deleted.

According to Robert Broughton, general counsel for the Farm Bureau, parallel federal laws makes North Carolina's anti-slavery legislation unnecessary, but "we can live with it." And though the Farm Bureau "got a black eye as coming out pro-slavery," he added, "we join with all North Carolina in deploring involuntary servitude."

Farm worker advocates are fuming. Joan Preiss, North Carolina advocate for the National Farmworker Ministry, says she feels that the law was gutted.

"The law essentially says that you can knowingly and willfully hire a slaveholder but you can't be one," she said. "The teeth are out of it."

Richard Klein, executive director of the North Carolina Farmworkers Legal Services, agreed that the law will not effectively deter debt peonage in North Carolina because the growers in effect are exempted.

"Involuntary servitude will remain a serious problem for a significant number of farm workers," Klein said.

Despite the criticism, the bill's original sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Malcolm Fulcher Jr., said, "We got more than we bargained for," and pointed out that growers may be liable under an existing state law prohibiting aiding and abetting the commission of the felony.

Fulcher, noting that California is the only other state with an anti-slavery law, said:

"It's a sad situation that slavery exists in the 20th century. I was embarrassed to even introduce this legislation. But I'm hopeful that its success does not stop here. The problem is nationwide."