Cook: Tennessee's role in ending slavery

Cook: Tennessee's role in ending slavery

February 22nd, 2015 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

This week, Sen. Bob Corker hopes to introduce one of the most magnificent bills of his career. It is global in scale, deeply moral and won't cost Washington much at all.

Corker's legislation would significantly increase America's fight against modern sex and labor slavery.

"The bill would be the most important thing to happen to the modern abolition movement," said Holly Burkhalter, vice president with the anti-trafficking International Justice Mission.

Some see the bill as the trafficking equivalent of what President George W. Bush did through the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Corker is swinging for the fence. Rightly so.

"We felt like a bold vision was the only way to solve the problem," Corker said.

Yet for all its global boldness, the bill has tiny and intimate beginnings. Its back-story reminds us of the power of grassroots activism, especially in Tennessee, where the work of ordinary college students, preachers, city politicians and engaged citizens can, quite literally, change the world.

Spring 2013: Organizers with International Justice Mission -- a Christian human rights group -- began contacting Corker's office, wanting him to support a now-dead bill that would elevate the government's anti-trafficking office to bureau-level status in the Department of State.

At the time, the bill seemed like a good idea.

Looking back, it is meager in comparison to Corker's current bill.

October 2013: The Nashville City Council passed a resolution calling for an end to global slavery while petitioning for Washington's help. The resolution mentions Corker by name.

College students across Tennessee began a letter-writing campaign that led to 750 letters being delivered to Corker's office in Washington, each encouraging him to actively fight modern slavery. Dozens and dozens of phone calls would follow.

Early 2014: Corker's staff continued to meet with IJM and other anti-trafficking groups. Philosophically and morally, there was common ground.

Yet practically?

Corker wanted something bigger that would, as one staffer said, "deal a mortal wound to slavery around the world."

Following the Super Bowl, Titans quarterback Jake Locker published a letter in the Tennessean, encouraging Corker to help end slavery. Here in Chattanooga, two local abolitionists -- Jency and Nathan Shirai -- wrote letters to the editor.

"As citizens and Christians, we feel compelled to advocate for the right to freedom and full life for victims of human trafficking," they wrote. "It's time for Sen. Corker to get on board."

Fall 2014: Corker and his chief of staff, Todd Womack, traveled to Southeast Asia. They talked face-to-face with victims. Met with the chief of police in Manila. Studied methods for measuring the effectiveness of anti-trafficking programs.

They also realized this: Much of the problem of global slavery comes from an ineffective system of law enforcement that dabbles in corruption and refuses to prosecute.

The trip influenced the writing of the bill, which calls for a heavier and measurable focus on law enforcement and greater support for post-rescue victims.

"When people enslave people ... they know there's not going to be a price to pay," Corker said. "If you raise the stakes by enforcing and prosecuting, they'll stop doing it."

In November, Womack, whose role in the bill's creation is hard to overestimate, traveled to Nashville to speak at an IJM banquet. More than 100 students, pastors, politicians and Nashville artists were there.

"We got your letters. We loved them. They were outstanding," Womack told the crowd. "When you show up, whether you write letters or whether you make calls or actually come to D.C. and talk to your lawmakers, we listen."

February 2015: In his new role as chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Corker called a series of hearings on trafficking; it was the prelude to the bill's introduction.

To listen to Corker talk of the bill is to hear clear echoes of the lessons he learned as mayor here. In a 30-minute interview, Corker referenced Chattanooga at least five times.

"Like we've done so many times in Chattanooga, we're going to use best practices to really solve this problem," he said.

If passed, the bill could lead to freedom for millions.

And it has direct ties to Chattanooga and churches, campuses and ordinary homes throughout Tennessee.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

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