Amendment 3 would eliminate exception to Tennessee slavery ban

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, speaks during a debate on school voucher legislation in 2019 in Nashville. She sponsored Amendment 3 in the legislature. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Constitution has a provision dating back to 1870 that prohibits enslavement and involuntary servitude, but the section provides an exception when it comes to punishments for a crime.

Critics say the 152-year-old law needs to change -- that there should be no exceptions to a prohibition on slavery.

And come Nov. 8 election, Tennessee voters will decide on Amendment 3, which would replace the provision with new language in a bipartisan effort led by, among others, former U.S. Bob Corker, a Chattanooga Republican, with Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly supporting the change as well.

At issue is the Tennessee Constitution's Article 1, Section 33 Declaration of Rights.

"Slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, are forever prohibited in this state," it states.

The new language voters will consider says: "Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited. Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime."

Voters in four other states -- Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon and Vermont -- will also decide on ballot measures to strike language from their state constitutions regarding slavery or involuntary servitude for the punishment of a crime, or, in Vermont, for the payment of debts, damages, or fines, according to the nonpartisan Ballotpedia website.

Corker said in a statement from the Vote Yes on 3 campaign that he was glad to join the effort, noting that while serving as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he became aware of the "travesty" that modern slavery affects more than 27 million people worldwide.

Others lending their name to the effort include former state House Republican Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, formerly of Chattanooga. Both state House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison of Cosby and state House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie of Nashville have signed onto the effort along with dozens of others.

The proposed constitutional amendment was sponsored in the legislature by Rep. Joe Towns and Sen. Raumesh Akbari, two Democrats from Memphis. In 2021, it easily passed the Republican-dominated House and Senate by the two-thirds vote required in each chamber to get it on the ballot.

"Yes on 3 represents our first and best opportunity to eliminate all slavery, with no exceptions, from the Tennessee Constitution," Akbari said in a statement.

In order to pass in the Nov. 8 general election, the amendment must receive a majority of "yes" votes -- and the number of yes votes must also constitute a majority of the total votes cast in the governor's race. Towns is optimistic.

"You never say it's a slam dunk," Towns said by phone. "You can't take anything for granted. That would be unwise, I think, from what I'm seeing. But we're working on it."

The Yes on 3 organization through July 25 had raised $6,100 and spent $3,100, according to its financial disclosure.

(READ MORE: Colleges pushed anew for reparations for slavery, racism)

Towns said more money is on the way. The Lynchburg, Tennessee-based Jack Daniel Distillery, owned by Brown-Forman Corp., is providing $50,000, Towns said.

"I'm hoping that the business community steps up," said Towns, who would like to see political ads on television and radio.

Two House members, both Republicans, voted no in 2021, saying it wasn't needed. Four members of the Senate, all Republicans, voted no, among them Sen. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald.

"Tennessee's Constitution has expressly prohibited slavery since it was first adopted 1870, so it's unnecessary to add this amendment to the state constitution," Hensley said last year while arguing against putting the issue before voters. "It will only confuse Tennessee voters by leading them to believe slavery is allowed under the current constitution, which it is not."

Prisoner leasing

Not long after Tennessee's 1870 amendment took effect, the "leasing" of prisoners to private companies began in areas of Tennessee, including Grundy County, as well as other parts of the South.

In Grundy County, inmates -- many of them Black -- were "leased" by white businessmen to mine coal on the Cumberland Plateau near Tracy City.

According to the website of Vote Yes on 3, which formed to support the amendment, Tennessee laws allowing convict leasing were gradually phased out through the 1940s.

"There is no constitutional barrier to that practice being revived," the website says. "In fact, it would not clearly violate the constitution for prisoners -- all prisoners regardless of race and regardless of the crime -- to be placed on an auction block and sold as slaves to the highest bidder, as long as it could be framed as punishment for crime.

"The abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude will never be complete until the exception is gone," the website says.

Work programs

Officials say the ballot measure would not do away with prison work and education programs, job training or community service time that may be given as part of a sentence to someone convicted of a crime.

The Tennessee Department of Correction supports the language change, after getting the second sentence added into the wording -- "Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime."

"We don't think the intent was to prohibit the department from requiring inmates to work or participate in programs," prisons spokeswoman Dorinda Carter said by email. "We preferred to have that clarified so that there was no question about the intent."

Carter said all inmates who are able to work or go to school are required to do so.

She noted it is considered a disciplinary matter when inmates refuse to work. That can result in dismissal from the job or program, loss of pay and loss of recreational electronic devices such as television and radio.

"Commissary purchases can be restricted to basic hygiene items, and visitation privileges can be limited to attorneys and ministers only," she said.

She said inmates are now paid based on the skill level of each job. The rate for a correction department job is 17 cents to $1 per hour, and pay is higher for jobs through the Tennessee Rehabilitative Initiative in Correction. The state agency provides occupational and life skills training for inmates through job training, program opportunities and transitional services aimed at helping assist offenders with re-entry into society.

"Some people thought it (the amendment) may have been something we wanted to do to prevent people from working. That was never the intent," Towns said. "People need to be involved and engaged. ... That was clarified and spelled out to dispel the rumors."

13th Amendment

Akbari said it wasn't until December 1865 that three-fourths of the states ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, officially ending slavery in America.

The federal amendment had -- and still has -- the exception for punishment of a crime.

With the exception, Tennessee and other Southern state legislatures passed new laws, known as the "Black Codes," Akbari said.

"These laws explicitly targeted Black people and subjected them to prison for new 'offenses,' such as loitering, vagrancy defined as being out of a job, breaking curfew and having weapons.

(READ MORE: Expanded museum traces legacy of slavery in America)

"And for the first time in U.S. history, many state penal systems held more Black prisoners than white -- all of whom could be punished with enslavement," Akbari said.

The Reconstruction Act of 1867 and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution attempted to rein in the abuses of the Black Codes.

A group of congressional Democrats, among them U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams of Georgia, are working to get the punishment-for-crime exception removed from the 13th Amendment. The change may be proposed by a two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress. Or, if two-thirds of the states request one, by a convention called for that purpose.

The amendment must then be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures or three-fourths of conventions called in each state for ratification.

"I'm bold enough to think that I can change the Constitution, and I know that there's a national, bipartisan, multiracial movement to get it done. Let's #EndTheException in the 13th Amendment," Williams tweeted in June.

Other measures

Amendment 3 is one of four proposed amendments Tennessee voters will consider in November. The other three are:

— Amendment 1 would enshrine Tennessee’s nearly 73-year-old “Right to Work” law in the constitution. It states: “It is unlawful for any person, corporation, association or this state or its political subdivisions to deny or attempt to deny employment to any person by reason of the person’s membership in, affiliation with, resignation from or refusal to join or affiliate with any labor union or employee organization.”

— Amendment 2 would add to Article III, Section 12 of the Tennessee Constitution a process for the temporary exercise of the powers and duties of the governor by the speaker of the Senate — or the speaker of the House if there is no speaker of the Senate in office — when the governor is unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office of governor.

— Amendment 4 would delete Article IX, Section 1 of the Tennessee Constitution, which prohibits ministers of the gospel and priests of any denomination from holding a seat in either House of the legislature. The U.S. Supreme Court declared the provision unconstitutional in 1978, overruling the Tennessee Supreme Court in a case involving the Rev. Paul McDaniel of Chattanooga, who was running for seat in a 1977 constitutional convention. McDaniel was later elected to the Hamilton County Commission.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.