Opinion: Having sponsored bill to end modern slavery, Corker leads effort to erase state constitution's slavery phrase

Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd/ Former Chattanooga mayor and former U.S. Sen. Bob Corker will lead the "Vote Yes on 3" ballot effort to remove a phrase about slavery from the state constitution.

Former Chattanooga Mayor and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, in leading a group of elected officials to persuade Tennessee voters to approve a measure that would remove slavery language from the state constitution, is following the Republican footsteps of the state's first post-Civil War governor.

William G. Brownlow, who took office a few days before the official end of the Civil War, helped Tennessee become the first former Confederate state to be readmitted to the Union, the first Southern state (and third overall) to ratify the 14th Amendment (essentially granting former slaves equal protection of the laws) and the only Southern state to escape the often harsh military rule imposed by Congress.

He also sought to give freedmen the vote and helped push the bill guaranteeing such through the state General Assembly in 1867, two years before the 15th Amendment, which granted Black men the right to vote.

Corker's job is somewhat simpler.

He and a bipartisan coalition of elected leaders want to amend the Tennessee Constitution, which now reads: "That slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, are forever prohibited by this State."

The change would remove the words "except as punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." So the constitution then would read: "That slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited by this State."

Simple, correct - what it should be.

The amendment does not remove prison work programs, job training or community service time that may be given as part of a sentence to someone convicted of a crime, and it is supported by the Tennessee Department of Corrections. It simply removes from the constitution a phrase that is essentially slavery by another name.

Voters in November who want to remove the wording should vote "yes" on the amendment. The catch is that the voter also has to vote in the governor's race or for a write-in candidate. If a voter doesn't vote in the governor's race, that person's vote to get rid of the slavery wording won't count.

To be included on the upcoming ballot, the measure was passed as a state Senate joint resolution in 2019 and 2021, as required by law, with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Tennessee would be the fourth state to ratify such an amendment, joining Colorado, Nebraska and Utah, in erasing language that still - somehow - remains in the U.S. Constitution's 13th Amendment.

Corker has dealt with the issue of slavery before - modern slavery.

In 2015, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he and ranking Democrat Robert Menendez, D-N.J., introduced legislation to create an effort to work with the private sector and foreign governments to help eliminate forced labor and sexual servitude around the world.

"Today more than 27 million people, many of them women and children, suffer in over 165 countries around the world, including our own," Corker said at the time. "As I have seen firsthand, the stark reality of modern slavery is unconscionable, demanding the United States and civilized world make a commitment to end it for good."

The bill didn't receive a full Senate vote in 2015, but the End Modern Slavery Initiative finally was passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017.

"By providing strong U.S. leadership and leveraging our limited foreign aid dollars," Corker said upon passage, "this initiative will work with foreign governments and philanthropic organizations to match the funding being provided by the U.S. and create a coordinated effort to implement best practices to stop this crime of opportunity from occurring."

Progress of the initiative, it was said at the time, would be tracked against baseline data with a goal of achieving a 50% reduction in slavery. Projects that fail to meet goals would be suspended or terminated.

To date, the Global Fund To End Modern Slavery - created through the bill - has directly impacted 88,000 lives, according to its website.

Corker, as quoted by Tennessee Lookout, referred to the modern slavery bill in accepting the leadership position for "Vote Yes on 3."

"Working with others," he said, "we passed legislation to begin to counter [modern slavery] in a more effective way. I think it is more than timely to strike any reference to slavery from our state constitution, and I appreciate the work of those leading the effort to do so."

Corker has more in common with Brownlow - the former governor who is seen as a controversial figure by some historians for his "undemocratic methods" - than efforts to end slavery. In 1869, the governor was selected to fill a seat in the United States Senate. It would be the same seat Corker would win 147 years later.

We would urge voters to join with Corker and end this vestige of slavery - however unacted upon it is today - in our constitution.