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Some voters will decide if 'slavery' stays in their state constitutions

slavery election
Posted at 11:44 AM, Nov 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-03 11:44:26-04

MEMPHIS, Tn. — A painful history is preserved at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Museum president Russ Wigginton says the slavery exhibit is a reminder of where we came from as a nation.

"When you think about in the United States, the institution was so critical to the foundation and the economic development of this country, and that economic development obviously had a tremendous influence on the social structure by which this country was," he explained.

On the ballot in several states, however, is the removal of language that proponents say ties us too close to the past.

"It's really an opportunity to renew a conversation about the history of our country," said Wigginton.

During the midterms this year, five states — Tennessee, Oregon, Louisiana, Alabama and Vermont — are voting on whether or not they are removing the language that allows "slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime."

Although slavery was abolished about 150 years ago, 20 states, plus the 13th Amendment in the United States Constitution continue using this language. Utah, Colorado and Nebraska have already changed the language in their state constitutions.

Tennessee State Representative Joe Towns (D) has been trying to take the language out of the state constitution for years, saying the language was what opened the door for Jim Crow laws which targeted Black citizens to make them more easily imprisoned. Jim Crow ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

"When you're talking about you are the leader of exporting democracy around the world, it doesn't fit. It makes no sense," said Towns.

While the amendment doesn't have unanimous support, it does have strong bipartisan support — the kind that's rare in current-day politics. State Representative Sam Whitson (R) said he threw his support behind it immediately.

"We've really seen a, a really, a groundswell support for this from both parties and independence on this, and it, it is really refreshing to see in this day and age," he said.

Opposition against these amendments mostly stems from what they say are potential impacts on prison work programs. Whitson and Towns both say this isn't about reforming prisons, as work programs will continue as normal.

"We need things that unite us and not divide us in this country and anything that we can do to show that we're Americans first when it comes to doing what's right for our democracy, I think this is one of those examples we should build on," he said.