A Black American Guide to Compromise
How should Black Americans feel about the word “compromise”? How should we define it?
After all, America seems to have defined it very well for us.
Of course, there’s the Three Fifths Compromise of 1787, which not only reduced our humanity even further than the condition of slavery allowed, but it transferred the powers of our population to the people who were the benefactors of our exploited labor. It increased the voting power of Southern slave holding states by a third and increased their Electoral College prowess by the same amount.
For perspective: according to historian Garry Wills in his book "Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power (pgs 5-6), it is very possible the extra voting power gave Thomas Jefferson the presidency, brought slavery to Missouri and territories forcefully annexed from Mexico, enabled the passage of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. It also assured the passage of the Kansas Nebraska Act, yet another legislative compromise with slave owning states repealing the Missouri Compromise (which made Missouri a slave state while outlawing slavery north of the 30 34’ line) and allowing Kansas and Nebraska to a process called “popular sovereignty” where citizens of the territory could vote on whether they would become a free or slave state. White Americans from both factions descended upon Kansas and fought and killed each other in the effort, displacing Indigenous Americans, who had JUST been banished there, in the process. After seven years of often bloody clashes, Kansas was ratified as a free state.
The Compromise of 1850 was a part of the plan to annex Texas to statehood. It redefined the border of the state to its present-day line after relinquishing much of the former Mexican land in the territory to the federal government. In exchange, Texas was rewarded with slave state status, and the south received a redefining of the Fugitive Slave Law, making it illegal to harbor or help escaped slaves. As a part of the rewrite, free state citizens could be deputized against their will to help with slave search parties.
What’s worse, as a part of the compromise, escaped slaves were denied any right to have their testimony recorded as public record. That meant that an escaped slave’s word was worthless, even after making it to the North. Worst of all, if a slave owner made a claim that a Black man who had been born free was actually an escaped slave, the free Black man had no legal recourse (the basis for the story of Solomon Northrup from 12 Years A Slave).
And while the slave trade was outlawed in DC due to this compromise, slavery itself was not.
As a result, even free-born Black men and women were never truly free from slavery even after the Civil War as the vestiges of slavery were not easily broken (for more context, Juneteenth celebrates the day when slaves in Texas were told of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865- two and a half years after the proclamation was made).
Even the Emancipation Proclamation was put through a prism of compromise. It didn’t end slavery wholesale, it only ended slavery in “rebel states,” or states that had not surrendered to the Union by Jan 1, 1863. It did not outlaw it in northern Union States, nor in states that had already become part of the union before the ultimatum was breached. That included Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, Delaware, Tennessee, parts of Louisiana and present-day West Virginia.
The Compromise of 1877 was made to resolve the 1876 presidential election in which neither candidate won the majority of electoral votes. In order for Rutherford B Hayes to be installed as President, all federal troops overseeing the Reconstruction were withdrawn, paving the way for the establishment of Jim Crow. Within 20 years, Black voters were less than 2% of those registered in places like North Carolina and Mississippi, despite being home to large populations of Black citizens.
The New Deal, an immense and broad-based effort to combat inequality, also has this sort of “compromise.” While programs were told to allocate 10% of resources toward Black inequality (commensurate to population percentage), unions were exclusionary, and business owners would fire Black workers to make room for White employees as discrimination laws were tough to enforce. The Agriculture Adjustment Act helped White farmers to the point they stopped working with sharecroppers who were primarily Black. The Farm Service Agency appointed Black farmers to agencies in the south only to be rebuffed by conservatives too worried about Black political stature. As a result, the appointments were rescinded.
All in all, 500,000 Black workers LOST jobs during a time of great economic expansion through federal intervention.
And, even when we were finally granted effective Civil Rights legislation, we had to have versions passed in 1866, 1871, 1875 (found unconstitutional in 1883),1957, 1960, 1964, 1968, 1990, and 1991 before it was even comprehensive enough. 136 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Waiting for public sentiment and political courage, through seven generations, was the compromise.
How does compromise manifest itself in our presidents?
Abraham Lincoln was actually considered a business-friendly moderate, so, once the District of Columbia Emancipation Act was signed in 1862, he lobbied congress to authorize reparations- for slave OWNERS- as a way to placate property rights that were buttressed by the Fifth Amendment, which required “just compensation” for government seizure of private assets.
Tera Hunter, professor of history and African American studies at Princeton, mentions in her New York Times article “When Slaveholders Got Reparations” that former slave owners got up to $300 PER SLAVE. Claims for 3000 slaves came in, making the payout close to $900,000 (around $23 Million today) with the largest individual payout equaling $18,000 for 69 slaves ($460,000 today)
The former slaves? Several hundred were able to gain land during Reconstruction and land grants that were partially reparative, but most lost their land due to the withdrawal and reversal of policy such as General Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15- popularly known as 40 acres and a mule- by unyielding politicians in Congress (and Andrew Johnson), or the Wage Labor system set up in occupied Louisiana by General Nathaniel Banks, effectively setting up a payment system to get freedmen to cultivate land without controlling the lands they worked (a system supported by Lincoln). By 1870, a mere five years after the Emancipation and four years after the 13th Amendment (yet ANOTHER compromise), most former slaves had given up on the idea of reparations, land-based or otherwise.
Even “progressives” put Black citizens on the backburner in the name of compromise. Theodore Roosevelt, considered very progressive in his time, spoke out against lynching, but kept segregation in tact in his cabinet, and failed to work toward federal intervention on any lynching that took place on his watch for fear of alienating southern politicians (this was the case for Taft and Wilson as well). Hoover appointed more African Americans to his cabinet than Coolidge and Harding combined but never fought for a federal anti-lynching law and removed Black leadership from the Republican Party in order to woo White conservatives from the Southern based Democratic Party. Eisenhower implemented a Civil Rights Act in 1957 that created the US Commission on Civil Rights but required voting rights defendants to have a jury trial, making such trials useless in southern states with all white juries.
And then, of course, there was Nixon and his Southern Strategy. Reagan and his Morning in America (and racist phone calls to Nixon). Clinton and his Criminal Justice and Welfare reform.
Compromise. Compromise. Compromise.
Compromise kept Black people enslaved way longer than it should have, even when the compromise was based on their freedom. Compromise gave away Black voting power to White citizens and leaders, first as slaves, then during Jim Crow, and now in the prison system (most prisons lie in heavily White rural areas, where the bodies of the prisoners count as a whole human, but they cannot vote; therefore, during the census, their power goes to electoral votes representing White people). Compromise has lost Black people jobs, cost them positions in leadership, moved them out of nicer neighborhoods while unsavory politicians blocked them into slums, defunded their schools for decades and allowed for wholesale state-sponsored terrorism in their communities to go unabated. And that “compromise” has led all the way up until today.
It was not, as they say, so long ago.
So if you wonder if this is who we are, know that compromise brought us here. If you’re shocked that we could be so callous to each other, know that it’s because each minor concession for the many equalled grave, life altering concessions for the few. And know that those few have NEVER seen a day in this country in which they’ve been completely removed from that legacy, regardless of what you may have learned from the media and your history books.
Moving into a truly new era in America, one where hate does not rule, is going to require policy and leaders that ask for bold changes. Changes that honor every single person in this country and give them equal access to the tools necessary for life, liberty and happiness. Equal access to good public education, nutritious food, safe neighborhoods, and respectful public servants must be tantamount. Each and every single person must be held accountable to uphold such a societal structure (and that means calling out the bigotry on display in so many viral videos), even when it makes us uncomfortable. Because compromising with hardcore conservatism has done NOTHING to fix our country, and done everything to keep old divisions fresh for exploitation by the likes of the fascists we see today.
It will be tough. It won’t be easy. These things have literally been brewing under the crust of the American soil for centuries. And if we are as strong as we say we are, we not only can do it, we MUST do it.