Towns trying to remove slavery from state Constitution

By Updated: March 15, 2019 2:46 PM CT | Published: March 15, 2019 1:52 PM CT

Saying he wants to blot out “one of the worst parts of our history,” state Rep. Joe Towns is renewing legislation to eliminate slavery and involuntary servitude from the Tennessee Constitution.

The Memphis Democrat was “shocked” a few years ago when he found out slavery still exists in Article I Section 33 of the state Constitution, which tracks the U.S. 13th Amendment and narrows the category of slaves to those convicted of a crime.

“It was deliberately left in the Constitution. That’s still a dig in the wound, the sore wound of enslaved people or prisoners of war, however you want to term it, 150 years since (the Emancipation Proclamation),” Towns said in an interview this week. “It shouldn’t be there, not in a democracy we tout ourselves to be around the world. It never should have been there, and it should not be there.”

Towns passed a resolution 95-0 on the House floor in 2018 to remove references to slavery and involuntary servitude from the Tennessee Constitution. But the measure’s Senate companion failed to start moving in that chamber soon enough to be considered before the Legislature adjourned.

The Memphis Democrat is back with a mission in 2019: to pass House Joint Resolution 151 saying under no circumstances can a person be “even remotely” considered or treated as “sub-human, three-fifths human or even less,” a form of treatment he calls “barbaric.”

The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee this week sent the resolution to the State Committee for consideration, and the Senate Judiciary Committee approved SJR159 this week, carried by state Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat.

The measure will have to be approved in two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly and receive approval on the next gubernatorial ballot -- a majority of those who vote in the governor’s race -- to change the state Constitution.

Jeannie Alexander, director of No Exceptions Prison Collective, began working with clergy three years ago to amend the Tennessee Constitution and universally abolish slavery.

“The average person has no idea that slavery and involuntary servitude are still legal punishments in the American judicial system,” Alexander says in a statement. “This language is unacceptable in a country or state that purports to abolish slavery.”

Towns and Alexander agree that people should serve time for criminal convictions, but they contend nobody should ever be a slave, a “dehumanizing” condition allowing human rights abuses against prisoners and “civil death” on release from prison.

“It was deliberately left in the Constitution. That’s still a dig in the wound, the sore wound of enslaved people or prisoners of war, however you want to term it, 150 years since (the Emancipation Proclamation).”
Rep. Joe Towns

“The continuation of slavery on any level creates different categories of citizenship and strips individuals of their rights, in some cases never to be restored,” Alexander said. “Language affects culture, and the continued existence of slavery has allowed for the explosion of mass incarceration in the United States and the rise of private prisons, where no one even pretends to hide the profit being made off the modern carceral slavery.”

Alexander pointed out Colorado residents voted in November 2018 to abolish universally slavery in their state Constitution. She noted Towns’ proposal has received bipartisan support because lawmakers realize the Constitution wouldn’t be written today with an exception to the abolition of slavery.

“Even politicians who like to tout that they are ‘tough on crime’ have no desire to be recognized as pro-slavery,” she said.

House Speaker Glen Casada supported Towns’ resolution in previous years and is backing it again.

“I appreciate Rep. Towns for bringing this amendment that prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude in Tennessee under our Constitution,” said Casada, a Franklin Republican. “The belief that all men are created equal is one of the founding principles of our nation, and we must ensure this belief applies to all Tennesseans.”

Said Towns: “Just like we’re doing certain cold cases, we’re trying to clean up some of this stuff that’s not been purged and gotten rid of and brought into modern thinking. It’s just something that should not exist.”


Joe Towns Raumesh Akbari Jeannie Alexander
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.

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