Editor’s Column: Kelsey’s defense of slavery exception fails Four-Way Test

March 19, 2021 4:00 am
Inside the Tennessee Senate chambers. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Inside the Tennessee Senate chambers. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A good friend of mine joined her local Rotary Club several years ago when she wanted to become more involved in the community. I was skeptical at first, knowing little about the organization.

I’ve learned more about it and Rotary is a fine civic organization that outlines its mission as a group of “friends, leaders, and problem-solvers who see a world where people unite and take action to create lasting change.” 

The group asks its members to abide by what is known as the “Four-Way Test:”

  • Is it the truth?
  • Is it fair to all concerned?
  • Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
  • Will it be beneficial to all concerned? 

The Four-Way Test reads as an updated version of the Golden Rule, that saying found in every ethical tradition that goes something like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

I found myself contrasting the principles of Rotary Clubs International with the Tennessee Legislature and spoiler alert: based on the disgraceful bills moving through the legislature and the hypocrisy of many of our state representatives and senators, the legislature doesn’t compare favorably with the Rotary Club. 

For consideration this week is Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican. Kelsey is a habitual violator of the Four-Way Test but he outdid himself in the past week. 

Senate Joint Resolution 0080, sponsored by Memphis Democrat Sen. Raumesh Akbari, came up for discussion on Monday. The caption text reads, verbatim, “A resolution to propose an amendment to Article 1, Section 33, of the Constitution of Tennessee to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude.”

Slavery is apparently still legal in the Volunteer State. Who knew? 

Kelsey was one of four senators voting to keep the language permitting slavery in the Constitution. In brief, his rationale was:

  • It’s fake history. 
  • We shouldn’t change the Tennessee Constitution lightly. 

After numerous news outlets reported on Kelsey’s comments, he posted to Twitter what is, in his own words, the unedited video of them, and boy, that video really does him no favors. 

In the video, Kelsey contradicts himself, by saying the 1870 version of the Tennessee Constitution states “slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited except as punishment for a crime.” 

“It’s ultimately fake history to be telling our voters that the 1870s constitution allowed slavery. It clearly did not,” Kelsey concluded. 

If the Constitution says one can enslave another person as punishment for a crime, then yes: Slavery is legal in Tennessee. Akbari’s proposal removes the exception and makes slavery strictly illegal under all circumstances.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, photographed at the Tennessee Capitol by John Partipilo on March 18, 2021.
Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, photographed at the Tennessee Capitol by John Partipilo on March 18, 2021.

I'm very clear that I can go three generations back and trace it to an enslaved person.

– Sen. Raumesh Akbari, responding to fellow Shelby County Sen. Brian Kelsey

“There’s a difference in the words ‘working’ and ‘slavery.’ I have worked. I have never been a slave and I think everyone on this floor knows that’s a clear distinction,” said Akbari, who is Black.  “What this proposed amendment does is it closes that loophole. I haven’t read any history books that said anything to the effect that Tennessee didn’t outlaw slavery.”

“I’m very clear what happened. I’m very clear that I can go three generations back and trace it to an enslaved person. I’m very clear that the 13th amendment outlawed slavery except for an exception for when people are incarcerated or duly convicted of a crime.

Akbari pointed out prisoners of either county or state correctional facilities can be compelled to work, but must also be compensated, meaning.

Kelsey styles himself as a strict Constitutionalist: his legislative biography lists his membership in the Federalist Society and he works as an attorney for the Liberty Justice Center, which purports to represent Americans whose constitutional rights have been violated. 

His desire to not change the Tennessee Constitution lightly would make for a solid argument, save for the fact he’s the primary sponsor for another bill that would amend the Constitution for something far less worthy than removing a clause about slavery. 

The summary for Senate Joint Resolution 002 says smack dab at the top it’s a constitutional amendment, despite the fact that right-to-work without being forced to join a labor union has been Tennessee law since 1947. And there’s no fake history about that: as part of Kelsey’s legal work, he sues unions and his employer is the lead counsel on a suit to recoup union dues. 

It appears Kelsey is perfectly willing to amend the Tennessee Constitution when doing so meets his political aims. 

To review our premise, are Kelsey’s words true? Are they fair to all concerned? Would keeping the slavery exception be beneficial to all concerned? Will his opposition to removing the slavery clause build better friendships? 

The answers are obvious. Kelsey fails the Four-Way Rule. Good thing he isn’t a member of the Rotary Club.


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J. Holly McCall
J. Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.