Abolition: A look at anti-slavery legislation efforts, state by state


Tennessee's Amendment 3 would eliminate all legal exceptions for slavery from the state Constitution. (Photo by Ethan Pickering)

Story by Tatiana Muhammad | Contributing Writer

Tennessee is not the only state considering changes to their constitutional language on slavery. Voters in Alabama, Oregon, Louisiana and Vermont will also consider similar questions in their state elections. 

Here’s a state-by-state look at the issue.

Tennessee

Voters in Tennessee will decide whether to alter the wording of Article I, section 33 of the state constitution November 8. This section was inserted after the Civil War and follows almost word-for-word what Amendment 13 of the U.S. Constitution states.

Tennessee’s language was approved only after an exemption for punishment of crimes was added. This leaves the language open to the interpretation that state prisoners could be viewed as slaves because they work while serving their sentences.  

Yes on 3, a bipartisan group promoting support of Amendment 3 on the Tennessee ballot, said the exemption to Amendment 13 was exploited by many states, who added the exemption to their own state constitutions. Slavery became legal in another form because “formerly enslaved people were arrested for minor crimes…and then put to work in conditions not much different than slavery.” 

State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, Democrat from Memphis, who was a sponsor for the legislation, told Fox 17 in Nashville, “Our constitution should reflect our values, and it’s important that we not have any loopholes that will say in any circumstance slavery is permissible.”

Alabama

Alabama, which also plans to make revisions on their state constitution, will be going as far as removing racist language. 

“The Alabama Constitution has language allowing parents to opt for students to ‘attend schools provided for their own race’ and sections about poll taxes, bans on interracial marriage and a convict labor system in which Black Alabamians, often arbitrarily arrested, were forced to work in mines and labor camps,” Kim Handler of the Associated Press reported. 

These provisions were long ago invalidated by court rulings or later amendments, but the language remained in the state’s government document.

Merika Coleman, a candidate for the senate, told the PBS News Hour, ” Your state constitution sets up your value system. And that 1901 Constitution didn’t see me as equal. And, so, I think it’s really important for us to use that symbol as a catapult to not only change the wording, but to change the hearts and minds.” 

Oregon

Measure 112 on the Nov. 8 ballot would repeal language in the state constitution allowing the use of slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal punishment. 

Oregonians Against Slavery & Involuntary Servitude said the measure is needed and “brings us one step closer to a more just and equitable state and world. By changing this language, Oregon would do away with the antiquated racist legacy of slavery in our state’s most important document.”

The proposal has a second part that gives Oregon courts and probation and parole agencies power to order “alternatives to incarceration for a convicted individual as part of their sentencing.”

The addition to Measure 112 would allow courts and probation/parole agencies to “order the convicted person to engage in education, counseling, treatment, community service or other alternatives to incarceration as part of sentencing.”

Louisiana

Amendment 7 would remove language from the Louisiana state constitution that allows involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime but allows for “the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.” 

However, Louisiana’s prison system has received scrutiny leading up to the vote. The Advocate newspaper reported the story of Curtis Ray Davis Jr., a former Louisiana state inmate, worked in a barn for two decades while incarcerated and described himself as a “modern day ex-slave.” 

The issue has become controversial in recent weeks as the sponsor of the proposed amendment, State Rep. Edmond Jordan, has called for the measure to fail.

“I’m going to vote against it,” he told reporters. “In my opinion, it could be interpreted by some to create new opportunities for slavery and involuntarily servitude as it is drafted. Rather than risk that interpretation, I would prefer to come back next year with a clean version that would not be subject to that interpretation.”

According to Ballotpedia, the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus and Louisiana House Democrats have also expressed opposition to the measure. 

Vermont

According to the Smithsonian, abolitionists of Vermont ended slavery across the colonies in 1777 and in 1858 the state committed to this by ratifying a stronger anti-slavery law in the Constitution. However, Vermont’s Constitution still allows slavery under an exception and the state’s Proposal 2 on the ballot wants to change that. 

“Vermont is proud to have been the first state in the Union to outlaw slavery in its constitution, but this proposal to clarify the antiquated language is meaningful as well,” Gov. Phil Scott said.

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