NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Senate on Monday advanced a proposal that would remove a clause in the state’s constitution allowing slavery or involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime.
Currently, the Tennessee Constitution states 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.”
Under the proposal, voters will have the option to delete that section and replace it by clearly stating that slavery and involuntary servitude is banned throughout Tennessee.
An additional line would be added to note that “nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.” The explanation was added at the request of the Department of Correction.
The resolution passed in the GOP-dominant Senate with only four Republicans opposing.
Sen. Brian Kelsey, a white Republican from Memphis, argued that the resolution would send a “fake history” message to voters that Tennessee’s Constitution permits slavery. He further argued that the resolution “doesn’t do anything” before voting against the proposed amendment.
“There’s a difference between working and slavery,” countered Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Black Democrat also from Memphis. “I’ve worked, I’ve never been a slave.”
Akbari added that the resolution would close a loophole in “very clear language.”
Amending the state constitution is a lengthy process in Tennessee. Proposed changes must pass by a majority in both chambers during one two-year General Assembly, and then pass by at least two-thirds of the vote in the next. The amendment would then go before the voters in the year of the next gubernatorial election, which is in 2022.