NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – A new effort to remove slavery conditions from the Tennessee State Constitution is making headway on Capitol Hill in coordination with the celebration of Juneteenth.
A bipartisan coalition consisting of advocacy groups, pastors, elected officials and more has set to pass Amendment 3 later this year, which would officially ban the practice of slavery in the state of Tennessee.
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Currently, the state Constitution allows for slavery as punishment for a crime, much like the United States Constitution.
Article I, Section 33 of the 1870 Tennessee Constitution, reads: “That slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, are forever prohibited in this State.”
The amendment, which passed the Tennessee Senate in March and the House in May 2021, proposes removing that language entirely and replacing it with a new section:
“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.”
Constitutional amendments require a referendum vote of the entire state if passed by the Tennessee General Assembly. The question will appear on the November general election ballot later this year.
The campaign to vote “Yes on 3” is led by Director Kathy Chambers, who shared she was proud to lead the charge on the amendment.
“I am honored to be leading a non-partisan coalition to finally address this overlooked part of our State Constitution,” she said. “This campaign is not about right and left, it’s about right and wrong. Slavery has no business anywhere in our state, especially in our highest governing document.”
In order to vote on the amendment, Tennessee voters must also cast a ballot for governor, according to Chambers.
“We’re going to lead this campaign and educate voters on what the amendment will do and how they can make their vote count this November,” she said. “That begins today by letting voters know that they must also vote in the governor’s election to ensure their ‘yes’ vote for Amendment 3 counts. Vote your conscience or write in the name of your choice – just make sure you don’t skip it!”
Theeda Murphy, an organizer of the effort, celebrated the momentum the amendment is gaining.
“On this Freedom Day, Tennesseans are celebrating the opportunity to finally finish the work of emancipation,” she said. “We can eliminate the last vestiges of slavery from our state constitution by voting Yes on 3 this November.”
The resolution allowing the issue to be placed on the November ballot passed the legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support, according to the campaign. Of 132 members in the General Assembly, only six opposed it.
The measure has received support from faith leaders as well as elected officials. Greeneville pastor Dr. Kenneth Saunders considered the measure a “human rights issue.”
“As a believer in Jesus of Nazareth, and as an Episcopal priest, I made vows to uphold these ideals in my life,” he said. “So, it bothers me to the core of who I am as a child of God to know that slavery still exists in whatever form in this country and in this state. To consider another human being a ‘slave’ is very much a human rights issue.”
“Our state and federal constitutions aren’t just our primary and most important governing documents,” said coalition leader Jeannie Alexander, “they are moral documents. As long as the stain of slavery remains in either of these constitutions we can never have a truly or just moral society. This November, Tennessee voters have the chance to do something right, to do something good and to finally finish the job of abolition. I am proud the state of Tennessee will lead the way toward freedom.”