Tennessee faith leaders unite in push to close state slavery loophole

Staff Photo / Pastor William Terry Ladd III is shown on July 16, 2013.

About ten years ago, Robert Payne, an inmate at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, was discussing prison conditions with the chaplain, Jeannie Alexander.

According to Alexander, Payne said nothing would change while the state constitution's ban on slavery had an exception.

Despite her background in law, Alexander didn't know what Payne was talking about. Payne directed Alexander to the section of the Tennessee state constitution exempting those "duly convicted" of a crime from the ban on slavery -- a clause which is "hidden right out in the open," Alexander said by phone Monday.

Disturbed, Alexander recalls matter-of-factly saying the constitutional text would have to be changed. Though in agreement, Payne was a bit skeptical, Alexander said.

"Uh, OK, chaplain," she remembered him saying.

(READ MORE: Amendment 3 would eliminate exception to Tennessee slavery ban)

The ensuing campaign to eliminate that exception to the state's slavery ban will culminate as Tennessee voters consider Amendment 3 in next week's election – and the measure is being promoted largely through religious organizations such as the African American Clergy Collective of Tennessee which, like Alexander, sees the exemption to slavery as a straightforward moral concern.

Alexander brought the amendment proposal to state lawmakers, and from around 2017 onward, the measure snaked through the legislative process -- at one point taking on a new sentence to assuage concerns from the Tennessee Department of Correction that the amendment's language could be misconstrued to forbid prison labor in general.

Historically in Chattanooga, it could be difficult to "get the clergy galvanized," said First Baptist Church Pastor William Terry Ladd III, who added that the city lacks "strong African American clergy groups."

But such organizations elsewhere were expanding. Ladd joined the steering committee of the nascent African American Clergy Collective of Tennessee, which formed in late 2021 to get historically Black churches involved in the politcal process.

The group initially focused its efforts on issues such as gerrymandering, Medicaid expansion and economic justice, Ladd said by phone last week. But when Alexander and the Vote Yes on 3 campaign approached late last summer asking the group to back the amendment, Ladd said advocating for the measure was a "no-brainer" and that it has become a priority of the group in the lead-up to Election Day.

In October, the African American Clergy Collective of Tennessee organized phone banks twice per week, and through text banks reached more than 100,000 people, Executive Director Shirley Bondon said by phone.

The campaign declared Oct. 16 "emancipation Sunday," and many churches around the state held services on the theme. The collective released a video in which pastors, including Ladd, described Amendment 3 and made the case for its approval. As early voting began in October, Ladd said he got texts from congregants who, reviewing their ballot at the polls, wanted to be sure they were accurately parsing the amendment's legalistic language.

The clergy's role is to speak on the amendment "as a moral issue," said Alexander, who added that "churches have responded overwhelmingly, across the state and across denominations."

Some regional faith leaders have put out lengthy statements supporting the amendment. In one, local United Methodist Church bishops applauded the amendment, which they said would ban the "atrocity of slavery and involuntary servitude in any form," and said it gives Tennesseans an opportunity to "right a historical wrong."

Yes on 3 Campaign manager Kathy Chambers said by phone Monday she sent a petition to a large email list of religious institutions, and more than 250 clergy from various denominations have signed on from across the state -- including, as of press time, 13 signatories out of Chattanooga.

In some states, similar measures seeking to eliminate constitutional vestiges of slavery have been opposed on grounds that the language of their respective proposals is poorly written and liable to bring misinterpretations. But the Chattanooga Times Free Press could find no organized opposition to Tennessee's Amendment 3.

Chambers, the campaign manager, said she's not aware of any current place where forced labor is happening in prisons in Tennessee. And it's not likely the approval of the amendment would immediately lead to immediate changes within the prisons -- a fact critics have cited to suggest the amendment is merely symbolic.

But beyond eliminating the future potential the slavery loophole might be invoked, Chambers said a change to the state's "moral" document could have a profound effect on the self-image of prison inmates current and former.

"If it changes the way you think about yourself, is that symbolic or is that real?" Chambers said.

Payne died shortly after getting out of prison, said Alexander, the former prison chaplain, who regards Amendment 3 as part of Payne's legacy. She said he changed her life when he told her, "I may be a prisoner, but by God nobody should be a slave."

"He was a good man, and he was my friend," she said. "He taught me a lot."