As Tennesseans prepare for the November elections, the question must be addressed, “Yes or No on Amendment 3?”  

Amendment 3 is the removal of the exception clause that states:

“That slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been dully convicted, are forever prohibited in this state.”

The rewritten Amendment 3 would say:

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.”

There is much discussion about: What is the real issue? Why vote Yes? and Why Now?  This is an attempt to provide insight into the importance, significance and urgency of removing an egregious loophole in the constitution.

Signatures on a historical document.
The signatures on the Tennessee State Constitution consecrated a document drafted in 1796. Image via Tennessee State Museum/Tennessee Virtual Archive

The constitution represents the basic principles upon which Tennessee is founded upon.  It is the core values that are held in common; our rights and protections that guarantee the freedom of all is determined by its provisions.  Power distribution and  the defined duties of government are established by constitutional authority.  It becomes the blueprint of what is mutually agreed upon to promote the common good, well-being and welfare of all Tennesseans. 

The matter of concern is the allowance of an exception for slavery in our Constitution. Voting YES on Amendment 3 removes the exception. Many ask, “How does this impact us in the present; What are its implications for the future?”  The exception creates a loophole in the system that allows the opportunity for nefarious exploitation; under it, the state can incarcerate people and treat them as if they are enslaved. So the exception ultimately restored what it was meant to destroy.  

Historical map showing slave population in the southern United States.
A map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states of the United States was compiled from the census of 1860. Image via Library of Congress.

Historians inform us that this exception was included to appease slave owners who were concerned the newly freed Black citizens would take work from the privileged white working class.  Under the guise of protecting white society and maintaining order, states exploited the slavery exception and employed a zero-tolerance policy with Black workers. Authorities began charging and convicting them with minor crimes to feed the new prison/slave system.  This loophole created a re-imagining of slavery/involuntary servitude into a new, massive, corporate, prison industry.

Keeping the marginalized subordinated continues today, as these communities are continually over-policed and disinvested.  After conviction, these individuals, marginalized by the system, are leased like tools and equipment to corporate entities who pay for the use of a traumatized, dehumanized and marginalized prison population. Through this process, many people  become re-enslaved.

A museum exhibit replicating phone booths at a prison. Documents are on the wall.
Video portraits of Ray Hinton (left) and Robert Caslon, people who were formerly on death row and were cleared of their sentence by the Equal Justice Initiative, are part of an exhibit tracing the through line between slavery and modern mass incarceration at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

In the 2008 article, “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?” the author writes: The private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up.  Prisons depend on this for income.  Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their workforce.  The system feeds itself.”  This new privatized carceral system includes many benefits. It provides the necessary labor force to perform the work needed to advance the economy. It assigns responsibility to house and feed those convicted to their lessors. Yet it does nothing to interrupt the power structure; and frees states of any responsibility to assist the previously enslaved to build healthy, productive lives.

This is further compounded by what appears to be a pipeline from poor and exploited communities to the prison system.  Statistics show that during the 2017- 2018 school year, the Department of Education reported that 5% of K-12 public school students are Black, but they make up more than 30% of suspended, expelled or arrested students. Racial disparity exists for public preschool students as well. Black preschoolers are 18% of enrolled students but are 43% of out-of-school suspensions. The school-to-prison pipeline is intentionally very Black.

The State Constitution fails to deliver on the promise of liberty for all. Instead, it allows a loophole that includes involuntary servitude and makes it possible for those in power to remain in power and continue the dominance that devalues and dehumanizes people. Today, laws, police and the justice system are used to continue the power imbalance, attempt to force conformance and exercise control over the marginalized communities as early as preschool. 

Removing offensive and inhumane slavery language from the constitution is more than symbolic.  It is a necessary step if we are to move to a more just, equitable and productive society where the freedoms and rights of all are valued and protected.

The Rev. Dr. Daryll H. Coleman is the senior pastor at Lane Chapel CME of Humboldt, vice president for academic affairs and an assistant professor of religion at Lane College and a member of the African American Clergy Collective of Tennessee’s steering committee.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

Got a story idea, a tip or feedback? Send an email to