Frequently Asked Questions


Slavery is a deep moral wrong, a violation of our best values, and a stain on our nation and its history. No person should ever be enslaved or treated as a slave for any reason..

Why should slavery be removed from Tennessee's Constitution?

Slavery is a deep moral wrong, a violation of our best values, and a stain on our state and its history. No person should ever be enslaved or treated as a slave for any reason.

Does the U.S. Constitution still allow slavery?
Yes. The 13th Amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Why is the 13th Amendment exception – and the exception in the Tennessee Constitution – so problematic?
  • The exception in the 13th amendment allows actual slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States, as long as it can be described as a punishment for a crime. This is a moral wrong.
  • The exception can always be abused until it is removed.
  • It means we have never fully abolished constitutional slavery in this nation OR IN THIS STATE, and it is past time for us to finish that task.
Why was this exception for slavery in the 13th Amendment and in state constitutions included in the first place?
  • The 13th Amendment was difficult to pass and the exception made it more palatable to slave states. Many states, like Tennessee, simply echo the same language in their state constitutions, or say nothing, allowing the 13th Amendment exception to stand.
  • The exception was immediately exploited by many states to continue slavery in another form. Formerly enslaved people were arrested for minor crimes such as vagrancy and then put to work in conditions not much different than slavery. In 1898, for example, the state of Alabama got more than 70% of its state revenue from convict leasing, essentially another form of slavery.
Does slavery still exist today?
Laws allowing convict leasing were gradually phased out through the 1940s, but there is no constitutional barrier to that practice being revived. In fact, it would not clearly violate the Constitution for prisoners – all prisoners regardless of race and regardless of the crime – to be placed on an auction block and sold as slaves to the highest bidder, as long as it could be framed as punishment for crime. The abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude will never be complete until the exception is gone.
Why abolish involuntary servitude?
Involuntary servitude is essentially slavery by another name, and it was included in the 13th Amendment for that reason. We should not allow back-door loopholes allowing slavery by calling it something else.
What impact will abolition have? Is it simply symbolic?
  • Abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude will provide constitutional backing for addressing and preventing slavery in any circumstances where they may occur.
  • Changing the Constitution does not create or eliminate state or federal laws.
  • It would be worth abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude even if it were primarily symbolic, as a healing symbol in divided times, and as a protection for the future.
Would removing slavery and involuntary servitude put an end to prison work programs or community service?
  • No. Work programs and community service can be structured in ways that do not constitute slavery or involuntary servitude, and desirable work programs or job training would clearly not be prohibited.
  • Colorado abolished constitutional slavery and involuntary servitude in 2018, and it has not affected these sorts of programs.
  • The Tennessee Department of Correction has reviewed the language of the amendment and does not oppose it because it specifically does not prevent inmates from working.
  • Whatever our criminal justice system may be, it should not be slavery or involuntary servitude.
Is this a partisan issue?
  • No. Three states have voted to abolish slavery and involuntary servitude so far—Colorado, Utah, and Nebraska—and in all three cases the initiative was bipartisan and placed on the ballot by a unanimous vote of legislators.
  • The amendment received overwhelming bipartisan support in the Tennessee state legislature with multiple co-sponsors from both parties signing on to the resolution. This issue is not right or left, it is right or wrong.
Do I really have to vote for governor in order for my vote to count?
This one caught us by surprise too, but under Tennessee law in order for your vote to count concerning a constitutional amendment, you MUST vote for governor, and yes, that includes write-in votes.

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