New York Historical Society



Realpolitik, Reparations and the African American Community

The issue of reparations for the African American community for the role slavery played in their history is an issue that will not go away. Periodically, the issue for reparations arises from the African American community and just as quickly fades away. The argument for reparations from the African American community is that they were brought to the United States against their will and that the United States, during its period of slavery (a horrific chapter in American history) used them to help build the infrastructure of the United States, as well as the subsequent denial of African American civil rights after the Compromise of 1877.

While these two arguments are used together, in reality, they are two separate issues. While the history of the treatment of the African American community during slavery is heinous and horrific, legally there is little prospect for redress through the courts because of it previously being legal under the Constitution, and with little prospect politically with over 2/3rds of Americans opposing reparations based on slavery. However, a case for reparations is much more feasible for the Jim Crow era, both legally and morally.

A Short History of Slavery World-Wide

The first record in recorded Western history that documents the practice of slavery is in the Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi circa 1860 BC. The code discusses slavery as if it were established custom.

While slavery has existed in a large number of societies in history, it was rare among primitive cultures that were primarily hunter-gatherers. Because mass slavery requires economic and food surpluses to be viable, mass slavery probably did not develop until the beginning of the Neolithic Revolution. Historians generally regard the Neolithic age to have begun 7,000 to 9,000 years ago.

Slavery existed throughout the world including in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, in Africa and among aboriginal tribes in the Americas, and was widely accepted for almost 10,000 years before it started to become regarded as a crime against God and humanity in the late 1700s.

Slavery knew no skin color, religious sect or gender. For 240 years the Slavic peoples of Russia and Ukraine were periodically enslaved by Tatar raiding parties. African slavery, which made up the bulk of the Atlantic slave trade, continued in Africa after the slave trade ended in the European and North American countries. The slave traders of Africa continued the slave trade by selling African slaves into the interior of Africa. Sadly, slavery is still present in the world. The International Labor Organization estimates that at the present time some 40 million people are still enslaved worldwide.

South Carolina, circa 1862. (Library of Congress)

The beginnings of abolitionism can be traced to France in 1315 AD when Louis X abolished slavery within European France but did not abolish slavery in its colonies. While revolutionary France abolished slavery throughout its colonies in 1794, the institution was re-established in 1802 by Napoleon. Abolitionism was more forcefully advocated for by the Quaker sect, in England and in England’s colonies in the America’s in the late 18th century. The Somerset case in England helped fuel the anti-slavery movement in England, which in turn led to the institution of slavery being outlawed in 1833 by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. After the American Revolution, the northern states of the new Republic began to outlaw slavery in their states, leaving slavery primarily located in the southern states of the American Republic.

The failure of the founding fathers of the United States to solve the issue of slavery in its struggle to become politically independent and the founding of the current Constitution of the United States directly led to the friction between the northern states and southern states and was the primary cause of the American Civil War. While Abraham Lincoln did not begin the Civil War to free the slaves, on the contrary, he openly declared that he only wanted to preserve the Union, he later became convinced that in order for the United States to survive as a country, the institution of slavery would have to be abolished. This is why he oversaw the passing of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to abolish slavery.

From the 1860s the institution of slavery, by and large, had been abolished in the European, and European American countries, and their colonies worldwide. The Moro Rebellion in the Philippines began by the refusal of the Muslims’ in Mindanao to abolish slavery at the end of the U.S.-Philippine War. Slavery continued to flourish in Asia while Latin America began to abolish slavery in the early 1800s.

The Tilden-Hayes Compromise in the United States

At the end of the American Civil War, and before the premature end of Reconstruction in the southern states, the African American community was protected by federal troops and began to establish themselves economically and politically, yet they were still a racial minority in the south, and the white southerners were enraged at the freedom of their former slaves and founded numerous organizations to clandestinely terrify and intimidate the African American community; federal troops were used to protect the African American community, especially during the Grant presidency.

The 1876 presidential election between Samuel J. Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes ended inconclusively and precipitated a Constitutional Crisis. While Tilden had clearly won the popular vote, he did not have a majority in the Electoral College, with Tilden having 184 electoral votes and Hayes having 165. Four states, Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana and Oregon, a total of 20 electoral votes, were outstanding and disputed by both the Democratic and Republican parties. The Compromise of 1877, ended this crisis. The Compromise was an informal agreement between the Republican and Democratic parties, and was not federal law:

  1. The removal of all remaining U.S. military forces from the former Confederate states.
  2. The appointment of at least one Southern Democrat to Hayes’ cabinet. David M. Keys of Tennessee was appointed as Postmaster General.
  3. The construction of another Transcontinental Railroad using the Texas and Pacific in the South.
  4. Legislation to help industrialize the South and restore its economy following Reconstruction and the Civil War.
  5. The right of the South to deal with blacks without Northern interference.

The last part of the compromise, giving the Democratic Party the right to deal with blacks without northern interference is the most heinous of this agreement. The black population of the south were American citizens and their rights as citizens were callously disregarded by both political parties.

With the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes, federal troops were withdrawn, and the era of the Jim Crow laws began.

The Jim Crow Era (1877 to 1954)

The phrase “Jim Crow” is thought to have come from a song and dance routine performed by a white actor during the administration of Andrew Jackson in 1828. Meant to satirize President Jackson’s populist movement the act known as “Jump Jim Crow” came to be referred to the laws passed by Southern states to disenfranchise African Americans.

From 1877 to 1954, the African American community in the South were reduced to little more than indentured servitude (another word for slaves) as a result of the Compromise of 1877. For 77 years, the federal government (governed by both the Republican and Democratic parties), ignored the constitutional rights of its (then) largest minority.

Virginia, circa 1905. (Library of Congress)

The era of the Jim Crow laws saw the rights of the African American community, citizens of the United States by law, ignored by state governments, primarily in the South but also in the North, with no recourse to the ballot box and no recourse in the courts. The Jim Crow laws were associated with Southern states, but African Americans suffered discrimination and bars to economic advancement in the Northern states as well.

A particular sadistic and barbaric means of enforcing racial discrimination in the South was done by domestic terror organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

Lynchings became the primary method of terrorizing the African American populace during the Jim Crow era. According to the Tuskegee Institute, there were 4,743 lynchings between the years 1882 and 1968 in the United States. Of these 3,446 were African Americans. Their study goes on to say that 73% of these lynchings occurred in the South. The Equal Justice Initiative comes in with similar numbers reporting that from 1877 to 1950 4,048 African Americans were lynched in the South.

It would not be until the decision of the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that the federal government would begin to enforce the rights of the African American community. It would be another 11 years until the federal government passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The passage of these acts brought the Jim Crow era to an end.

Since 1954, the federal government has increasingly become involved in ensuring that the rights of all minorities were protected under the law. The case of “Mississippi Burning” brought the full weight of the federal government against the KKK, and resulted in prison sentences against members of the KKK for their acts of domestic terrorism against U.S. citizens of any race, creed or color.

A policy of Affirmative Action was begun by President Kennedy by Executive Order 10925, and later by Executive Order 11114. This policy of Affirmative Action has been followed and augmented since 1961, though the Trump administration has appointed more conservative judges, and the process of Affirmative Action may come under attack and be ended by the conservative-leaning Supreme Court.

A curious note to Affirmative Action is that the organization of American Descendants of Slavery have complained that Affirmative Action is being diluted because other blacks who are recent immigrants are benefiting from Affirmative Action policies even though they are not the descendants of slaves.

Reparations for the African American Community

As noted at the beginnings of this article, there have been recurrent calls for reparations for the African American community based on their enslavement from the 1600s until 1865, as well as the discrimination that they faced from the Southern and Northern states and to a certain degree by the federal government. The Supreme Court ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson comes to mind as to the connivance of the federal government in racial discrimination during the Jim Crow era.

The Constitution of the United States allowed the practice of slavery upon its ratification in 1788. Because of this, legal action to authorize the disbursement of federal funds for reparations to the African Community, even if approved by majority vote in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, would be challenged in federal court and would eventually wind up before the Supreme Court. Given the conservative turn of the Supreme Court in recent years, it is unlikely that the Supreme Court would allow this.

As of this writing, 71% of Americans oppose reparations for slavery. Reparations for slavery for the foreseeable future does not have any realistic opportunity of succeeding. It should be noted here again, in the estimated 10,000 years of slavery, it is only in the last 200 years of human existence that the notion of slavery is evil became commonplace. If placed on a timeline, the last 200 years would be 0.02% of that timeline. Slavery was practiced by all cultures, and by all races and by all religions.

However, the passage of the 13th Amendment, and subsequent racial discrimination against African Americans, and the failure of the federal government to protect the civil rights of African Americans would appear to have a firm and sound legal basis.

Discrimination and violence against African American culture is well known. The list sadly is too long for every instance of violence and lynchings to be documented here, so the list of atrocities listed below are truncated:

The Rosewood massacre in Florida, the Elaine massacre in Arkansas, the Thibodaux massacre in Louisiana, the lynching of Jim Coe in Omaha, Nebraska, the East St. Louis riot in 1919, the Atlanta race riot in 1906, the Red Summer of 1919, the sterilization of African American women in Mississippi known as the Mississippi Appendectomies, and the experiments of the federal government that became known as the syphilis study at Tuskegee.

Both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are complicit in the discrimination of the African American community. The majority of the Southern states are responsible for a great deal of the Jim Crow atrocities, but some of the Northern states are complicit as well.

The demands for reparations are an open wound on the American body politic. As such it is an issue that needs to be addressed, preferably in a political setting rather than in a court setting. Until this issue is settled, and an agreement is reached by both the African American and the European American community, the friction generated by racial discrimination in the Jim Crow era will continue, and the country will be the poorer for it.

Since the Compromise of 1877 is the main reason for the birth of the Jim Crow era, it should first be addressed by a conference between both major political parties in the U.S., and a way forward found to satisfy the African American community, and a way forward agreed to by the European American community. If a political settlement cannot be reached, then the African American community should begin a series of class-action lawsuits against the offending parties, mostly the associated states that bear the primary responsibility of discrimination but to also include the U.S. federal government and both the Republican and Democratic parties.