HJR8: Committee votes to remove slavery reference from Utah’s Constitution

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The Utah House Judiciary Committee decided it was time to remove slavery from the Utah Constitution as constituents questioned how it got there in the first place.

The committee passed a joint resolution Feb. 5 that would place an amendment on the Utah Constitution on the 2020 ballot. The measure moves to the full House for debate and vote.

The explanation on how slavery or “involuntary servitude” language first got into the Utah Constitution takes a bit of a history lesson. Following the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865, a person walking down the wrong side of the street would be arrested. A person who dropped a piece of paper could even be arrested. Soon after being arrested, they would be put into prison and leased out to different labor programs to fix the nation wide labor shortages. They did this through policies and laws called “black codes.” These codes were used to arrest individuals for any reason.

“That is the reasoning behind this language and why it is time for this language to be removed from our state constitution,” said bill sponsor Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City.

The language was added to state constitutions across the nation, including Utah’s, in order to fill labor shortages.

James Evans, the former chairman of the Utah Republican Party, told the committee he hoped this initiative would set an example for the rest of the nation. States across the country like Nevada, Tennessee and Wisconsin have yet to eliminate these words from state constitutions.

“In keeping with the values of Utah, we can send a message to the rest of the country that we need to remove this language. We need to remove it not only from the Utah Constitution, but also from the United States Constitution,” Evans said.

Evans’ grandfather was born into slavery in 1845 in South Carolina before joining the Union soldiers. When he passed away in 1908, he left an army pension to his wife and children, including Evans grandmother.

“America, even during that time was progressive and continuing to grow and expand. At the core of this is individual liberty and freedom,” Evans said. “We must remember, anytime the light of liberty is dimmed, the darkness of tyranny spreads.”

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, hugs Scott Howell after HJR8 passed in committee. Hollins received a standing ovation following the committee hearing. (Decker Westenburg)

Despite unanimously passing through the House Judiciary Committee, some attendees shared concerns the bill would hurt the prison system. Hollins, a social worker, said she has no intention to stop prisoners from working. She believes work requirements are a vital part of rehabilitation.

Jean Hill from the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City told committee members she believes ridding the Utah Constitution of slavery would emphasize that people in prison are still humans.

“Slavery is rooted in the notion that allows a human to be treated as an object. No longer regarding equal dignity as brothers and sisters sharing a common humanity, but rather as means of property to others. Removing language condoning slavery from our state constitution is a step out of the past,” Hill said. “It does reflect that even a human being in prison is still a human being.”

Representatives from the NAACP, Black Lives Matter Utah, community leaders as well as leaders from a variety of religious organizations also voiced their support. They said what it meant for them individually as well as for the state as a whole.

Shandra Benito, Ramona Lucius Burns and Elise Butterfield from Art Access write thank-you letters to Rep. Hollins. (Decker Westenburg)

“If you’re going to create roots in a space, it’s important to know the soil wants you there. Nothing can grow without that agreement. This is Utah telling me this can be your home, you can bring and raise a family here,” said Ramona Lucius Burns from Art Access in Salt Lake City.

State representatives and residents alike shared how getting rid of slavery in the constitution is more than a simple change to the words of the constitution.

Former Utah Senate member Scott Howell related the change to the recent push in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to use the full name of the Church. 

 It made me think a little bit about our constitution and how words do matter — the word slavery and the connotation that it brings with it,” Howell said. “It just doesn’t fit into Utah’s values.”

Community members said they hope, on top of serving as an example to other states, this effort can be replicated again as Utah faces issues in the future. Reverend France Davis, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, said he hopes this decision would serve as an example of unification.

“The outcome of today’s committee meeting is tremendous. People of all political parties, racial backgrounds and histories can come together on one issue. That makes the difference for all of us,” Davis said. “It is saying that we are all in the boat together, and if one end sinks, everybody is going to sink and be in trouble.”

The committee’s unanimous decision to remove slavery is the first step to amending the Utah Constitution. If it passes the House and Senate and Gov. Gary Herbert signs the bill, it will go before voters on the 2020 ballot.

“What we have in common and what unites us is greater than what divides us,” Hollins said. “We still have a lot of work to do. This is just the beginning.”

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