VOL. 41 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 28, 2017
Bill to change state Constitution's wording on slavery gets boost
By Sam Stockard
Rep. Joe Towns’ legislation to change the state Constitution’s wording on slavery is being postponed until 2018, but it picked up a key endorsement Monday from Republican House Majority Leader Glen Casada.
In a committee that handles late bills, Casada explained it would take too long for the measure to go to the House floor, then through the committee system and back to the floor for final consideration before the Legislature adjourns next week.
But the Franklin Republican said “I’d like to sign on to it,” which could be crucial for passage in the House which has a supermajority of 74 Republicans and 25 Democrats.
With that sort of backing, Towns, a Memphis Democrat, was hardly disappointed with the outcome.
“Obviously, we want to move forward quickly, but I’m excited about the fact we got the leader on record saying that he’s gonna support it. The little delayed action is not bad,” Towns said.
Towns’ bill calls for a constitutional amendment rewriting the Tennessee Constitution to say, “That slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited in this State.”
Amending the Constitution requires votes of approval in two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly, in this case the 110th and 111th, which wouldn’t take office until 2019, and a vote by Tennesseans. State law requires support by a majority of those participating in the gubernatorial election for passage.
Similarly to the U.S. Constitution, Tennessee’s Constitution bars slavery or involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime where the person is convicted.
“Either you’re in a country where you’re free and you don’t lose your freedom and become a slave or enslaved regardless of what you do (or you’re not),” Towns said. “Now, you can go to jail for your crime, but you still are a human being. You should be treated like a human being.”
Twenty-six states defer to the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery except for convicts, and 24 states take a similar approach as Tennessee, he said.
“Which means technically, what everybody’s embraced, whether you understand it or not, is when you go to jail, you’re a damn slave. That’s what it boils down to. Any human being in this country who goes to jail is subject to it,” he said.
Towns said he also plans to take the matter to the national level and ask Tennessee congressmen to change the U.S. Constitution.
He brought up the legislation after lawmakers found out last week they had voted for a resolution April 13 recognizing an unknown Lake Charles, La., pastor who wrote a book, “Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption.” Members of the Black Caucus, including Towns, had asked the resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Sparks, not to bring a separate measure recognizing the state’s rich history, the accomplishments of the state’s first black legislative, Sampson Keeble, during Reconstruction, and the purported life-changing events of Forrest, who is recognized as a military genius but also traded slaves and was found to have committed war crimes in a massacre at Fort Pillow near Memphis.
Civil rights cold case bill advances
Legislation creating a special joint committee to study matters dealing with the investigation and prosecution of unsolved civil rights crimes and cold cases is moving through the General Assembly.
Sponsored by Rep. Johnnie Turner, the measure received approval Monday by the newly-appointed Study Subcommittee of Finance, Ways & Means, which sent it to the finance subcommittee.
The Memphis Democrat explained the task force would hold hearings across the state to take testimony regarding people whose lives have been affected by unsolved civil rights crimes. She called it urgent because some of the attitudes that existed in the 1960s civil rights movement are starting to re-emerge at the national level.
“So many people have called or contacted me discouraged with what happened to their family members,” Turner said. “And even though the family members are now deceased, the fact that somehow or another somebody at a higher level is considering their feelings to be important enough to let us have this committee and to conduct these hearings, even though the perpetrators of the crime may be deceased, it would bring closure to the family to see that somebody finally cares.”
The Senate measure of the version is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, a Collierville Republican.
Sam Stockard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.