Kentuckians push to remove slavery language from state constitution

Voters in four states approved changes to their constitutions last year. Now, some Kentuckians are calling on lawmakers to start the process of making a change.
Published: Feb. 27, 2023 at 4:42 PM EST
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FRANKFORT, Ky. (WKYT) - Slavery was abolished in 1865, but it remains on the books in more than a dozen states, including Kentucky.

Voters in four states approved changes to their constitutions last year. Now, some Kentuckians are calling on lawmakers to start the process of making a similar change.

It would take a constitutional amendment. It would first have to be passed by the Legislature before voters could see that amendment on the ballot.

Section 25 of Kentucky’s Constitution reads:

Slavery and involuntary servitude in this state are forbidden, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.

“Section 25 is merely the reuse of the 13th amendment to the US constitution, which abolished slavery in the United States. It is the exact same language,” said Kurt Metzmeier, Professor of Law at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law.

Executive Director of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, Terrance Sullivan, is one of many calling on Kentucky lawmakers to change the state’s Constitution.

“A lot of their prison systems were designed to basically work the same fields that were once used as slaves,” Sullivan said. “And so they kept these kinds of things in their constitutions as a way to really continue the tradition of slavery under a different name.”

Sullivan says he believes Kentuckians would be in favor of amending the constitution, but first, they have to be aware of its language.

“If people are made aware that it even exists, I think many people would say the same thing of, ‘oh, wait. Really?’ and make that decision to change,” said Sullivan.

Ultimately, the decision would lie with Kentucky voters. A proposed constitutional amendment would appear on the statewide ballot for voter ratification after being passed by the Legislature.

“I think we need to let the people speak on this issue that is clearly wrong and out of our past, and unacceptable aspect of our past and it’s manifested itself at least in part in our present, so I think it does make a point, but I think the legislature should put that up and have this debate,” said Senate Minority floor leader Gerald Neal.

Sen. Neal says he thinks an amendment to section 25 could pass in Kentucky.

“I don’t see where there’s a loss on any level because as I’ve said before, I don’t see any immediate changes, but it will stimulate perhaps our thinking about how we deal with this question of those who break the law,” Sen. Neal said.

Kentucky wouldn’t be the first state to make this sort of change. Tennessee is one of four states where voters chose to ban slavery last year.

If we mirror the amendment passed in Tennessee for example

“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.”

“Slavery and involuntary servitude’ would be ‘forever prohibited.” but inmates could still be put to work.

“To say that slavery in no form exists in Kentucky, even if you’re convicted of a crime is a big win but we would need to go the extra step and pass laws that give some rights and freedoms to folks who are incarcerated said Policy Strategist for the ACLU of Kentucky, Kungu Njunguna,

While many are calling for further prison reform in Kentucky, they see banning slavery in the state as a long overdue step towards “righting a wrong.”

The deadline to file bills in the 2023 legislative session in Kentucky has passed. The earliest a similar amendment could appear on the ballot is in 2024.