The Challenge

The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution states:

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.

The phrase “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party should have been duly convicted” is called “the exception clause.” It legally allows slavery and involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime.

The Opportunity

After the 13th Amendment was ratified, many Southern states adopted the exception clause into their state constitutions. This led to new forms of modern slavery and indentured servitude.

However, any state can update its constitution to remove slavery exception language. This eliminates constitutional permissions for modern-day slavery and indentured servitude.

Drafting Legislation to Remove the Slavery Exception in a State Constitution

Different Southern state have different slavery exception language in their constitutions.

  • State constitutions that include slavery exception language: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and North Carolina
  • State constitutions that neither ban nor permit slavery: Florida, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia
  • States constitutions that have removed slavery exception language: Alabama and Tennessee

This toolkit breaks down the process to remove the slavery exception in a state’s constitution. It is also available as a PDF to download. Here are the major steps:

  • Learn the state’s amendment rules

  • Build a supporter base to drive consensus

  • Find a bill sponsor

  • Create clear and simple amendment draft language

  • Create statewide constituent education the proposal and why it matters


Eliminating a state’s slavery exception language requires passing an amendment to the state’s Constitution. Each state has its own process to pass an amendment.

Questions to consider:

  1. What is the state’s process for amending its Constitution?
  2. Does the amendment process involve multiple votes over multiple sessions or years?
  3. If so, what is the threshold for passage of each vote?
  4. Is it possible to pass the legislation and have the amendment appear on the ballot in the same year?
  5. Once the amendment is on the ballot, what percentage of votes is needed for passage?
  6. What is a realistic timeline if every legislative vote goes your way?
  7. What is the contingency plan for resolving issues and keeping the bill on track?

Passing a state constitutional amendment requires sponsors. Technically, many legislators can be a sponsor. However, identifying the right sponsor for the bill is critical.

Finding the best sponsor is not about choosing from a particular side of the aisle. The ideal is someone who can focus on this bill. This includes seeing it through even when passing your legislation takes years.

Questions to consider:

  1. If every vote goes well, how long would it take to pass this bill? That is the base timeline. For example, in Tennessee, someone must introduce the bill, then it must pass two votes in two separate General Sessions (a total of 4 years, 2 years per General Session). Then the amendment appears on the next gubernatorial ballot
  2. Who is the best person to sponsor this bill?
    1. Who has the tenacity to see it through?
    2. Who will be the most vocal supporter?
  3. Who is in a safe district who can be reelected? If a legislator is elected every two years but it takes four years to pass the bill, the sponsor will be up for re-election before the bill passes. It may be better to find a sponsor who represents a safe district.
  4. Are they invested? It takes work to pass an amendment, regardless of supermajorities. Find someone who will be accountable and invested in shepherding along the bill.
  5. Do they have a leadership role? Finding a Sponsor or Co-Sponsor who is a Chair or Vice Chair of the committee(s) the legislation is assigned to is a great way to move a bill through committees.
  6. Are they well connected? Many Southern states have supermajorities. It’s helpful to have colleagues across the aisle if you are in the minority party.
  7. Are they a lightning rod? While fiery passion can inspire one side, it can distance potential colleagues and voters on the other side of the aisle.

Passing the amendment through the legislature requires support from sponsors and key state agencies. It is also important to understand the concerns of your potential opponents and turn them into allies. Reducing the number or strength of groups lobbying against the bills will help ensure legislators feel comfortable passing the bill.

Key groups who could become potential allies to pass the bill:

  • National business community (Fortune 500 companies)
  • Local business community members & chambers of commerce
  • Faith communities
  • Justice communities

Questions to consider:

  1. What companies based in the state are required to have Modern Day Slavery Statements?
  2. What additional companies might support removing the slavery exception from the state constitution?
  3. What business leaders should be brought to the table? For example: Chambers of Commerce, CEOs, and economic development officials
  4. How might a company or business leader benefit by publicly supporting the effort to remove slavery from the state’s constitution?
  5. How does removing slavery from your state’s constitution align with each faith community’s mission statement and teachings?
  6. How are faith communities in your state addressing the legacy of slavery and racism?
  7. What faith leaders should be engaged?

“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.” – Amendment 3, Tennessee Constitution

Using clear, simple language is a key reason Tennessee was able to change its state constitution. Two other states failed to create clear amendment language to remove slavery from their state constitutions.

In California, the conversation broadened from simply removing slavery from their constitution to prison wage issues. Ultimately, the shift caused a $1.5 billion fiscal note to be attached to the measure, which led to its broad bipartisan defeat.

In Louisiana, the original ballot language was ambiguous and confusing. According to the amendment sponsor, the language could lead to differing legal opinions, and might explicitly allow involuntary servitude as part of the lawful administration of criminal justice. Ultimately, the sponsor withdrew his support and joined the bipartisan effort to defeat the ballot referendum. The amendment sponsor reintroduced the amendment in the 2023 Legislative session but that measure failed to pass in the Senate.

Questions to consider:

  1. Is the amendment focused only on removing your state’s exception clause?
  2. How might the language impact other issues such as prison wages and work programs?
  3. Is there anything in the amendment as introduced that would generate a fiscal note?
  4. Will voters understand what the amendment does and does not do?

Public awareness campaigns will help the amendment pass. These campaigns should speak to different voters and voting blocs. They should also anticipate and answer questions that people may have or opposition might raise.

Questions to consider:

  1. Does messaging have broad bipartisan appeal?
  2. Does messaging create common ground for all parties involved?
  3. How might the passage or failure impact the public’s perception of your state?
  4. Does messaging speak to that impact?

Case Study: Tennessee Bans Slavery From the State Constitution

On November 8, 2022, Tennessee became the first Southern state to ban slavery from the state constitution. 

Tennessee’s campaign took six years and brought together one of the most bipartisan coalitions in state history. This case study distills valuable lessons the bipartisan Tennessee campaign can offer other Southern states that wish to do the same.

What Comes Next?

EPU’s mission is to build a more just, equitable, and inclusive South, uprooting barriers that have long divided the region by race and class. We believe our cities and towns will only thrive if they find a way to unite around a common purpose.

In fulfillment of our mission, EPU serves as a resource serves as to community leaders, policymakers, and advocates taking actionable steps to accelerate positive change. Here are ways you can contact us.