What was the Compromise of 1877, and why did it irrevocably alter the fate of African Americans in the US?
In 1876 there was a contested presidential election between a Republican candidate named Rutherford B Hayes and a Democratic candidate named Samuel J Tilden. In this election, there was one of the rare cases where Tilden actually won the popular vote whereas Hayes won the electoral vote. So there was a standoff in Congress for months over how this presidential election was going to end. Eventually, they made kind of a backroom deal known as the compromise of 1877..
The Great Betrayal of African Americans
In this compromise, the white Southern Democrats (the former slave owners) and the Northern Republicans agreed that Rutherford B. Hayes, a Northern white Republican will get to be President of the United States. In exchange, the US military forces that had been occupying the South, especially the states of Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, would be withdrawn. These northern troops had been enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the equal citizenship of African Americans in the South. In the Compromise of 1877, known historically as the great betrayal of African Americans, the North pulled troops from the South and allowed the former slave owners to regain power. All African Americans should know this history.
The North Gave Up on Ensuring Racial Equality for African Americans
The historical significance for African Americans of this compromise of 1877 is that African Americans were betrayed. Over two hundred thousand African American soldiers had fought in the northern military to help defeat the southern slave system or confederacy. The Union troops withdrew from the South and went back to their barracks. They no longer interfered in the political system of the South. This allowed the southern whites, who had fought the war to maintain slavery, to return to political, economic, and social power. So, with the compromise of 1877, the Republican Party, which has been standing behind the rights of African Americans, (the party of Abraham Lincoln) pretty much gave up as a party on trying to ensure the racial equality of African Americans.
Why Did The North Pull troops Out of The South
Why did they do this? There were several factors.There was a question of weariness and giving up on their part. The Civil War ended in 1865. Twelve years later, in 1877, there were still federal troops in the south. Northern white parents wanted their boys to come back home. Another reason is that in 1873 there was an economic panic – a depression. This economic bust in 1873 meant that people had less money to throw at the problem of Reconstruction in the South.
White Racism from North to South
From the perspective of African Americans, the last, and most significant reason was racism. Part of this is a combination of racism and the new labor movement in the north. So, as whites in the north cut farther and farther away from the Civil War, the animating spirit of abolition started to fade among many Northerners.
The late 19th century was also an era of increasing racialization, especially as new white ethnic classes came into the United States from Southern and Eastern Europe. So, there was a new interpretation of race that really came to the foreground in this time period called social Darwinism. The interpretation of racial difference and hierarchy among the races became more broadly accepted throughout the United States, not just in the South. So, in 1877, as a result of the Compromise of 1877, the federal troops in the South that were remaining packed their bags and went home.
Former Slave Owners Enact Jim Crow Laws
African Americans in the South were left with no one to protect them from the same southern white governments that had previously enslaved them. The former slave owners moved quickly. Within months, many of these governments passed the laws which we now call Jim Crow laws. These are the laws which prevented African-Americans from voting. They prevented intermarriage between whites and blacks. Most significantly, they also enacted all of the separations of public accommodations that we now associate with Jim Crow. These include sitting in the back of the bus, using a separate water fountain, etc.
The Fourteenth Amendment Passed to Protect African Americans
Now, if it sounds to you like these sorts of laws were directly in contradiction with the 14th amendment, you’re exactly right. The 14th amendment says that laws cannot target a specific race and that there’s equal protection under the law for everyone born in the United States. It was passed specifically to protect African Americans.
Jim Crow Laws Essentially Overturned 14th Amendment
So, these Jim Crow laws in the South essentially overturned both the 14th and the 15th amendments. Furthermore, in 1896, an African American man named Homer Plessy was arrested for sitting in a white train compartment. This was 59 years before Rosa Parks. Homer Plessy tried to desegregate trains. In fact, he’s tried to test the constitutionality of having segregated train compartments in 1896. His case went all the way to the US Supreme Court.
Plessy vs Ferguson – US Supreme Court Subjugated Blacks
The high court ruled that it is fine to separate the races as long as separate accommodations are equal. This decision was the final nail in the coffin for African Americans. The brief period of rights enjoyed during Reconstruction were now officially over. Plessy vs. Ferguson essentially re-subjugated African Americans back to near slavery.
So Called Separate but Equal
In theory, separate accommodations for whites and blacks were supposed to be equal. In reality, whites had all the power and controlled all the resources. The result is that they almost never were equal. In fact, it was the very separation itself that implied the inequality. And that is what the NAACP eventually argued in the Brown versus Board of Education case in 1954. Brown v Board of Education overturned this doctrine of so-called, separate but equal. However, in between this period of 1877 and 1954 Jim Crow laws were on the books in all of the southern states. Some of those laws are still on the books governing life for African Americans today.
Racism up North as Well
But don’t be confused into thinking that things were terrible in the south and that the North was a racial utopia. Even though segregation laws and violence such as lynching to enforce segregation laws existed mainly in the South, de facto segregation and widespread racial prejudice also existed in the North – particularly in housing and job discrimination. Furthermore, it is clear to the world that the 1954 the Brown versus Board of Education decision didn’t end segregation or end racial prejudice in the United States.
Why the Civil Rights Movement
The struggle by African Americans to enforce the legal end of segregation, and to enforce the end of some of the de facto forms of segregation and racial prejudice in the North, is what gave rise to the modern civil rights movement.
The real tragedy of the Jim Crow era was that it didn’t have to be this way. In fact, in that presidential election of 1876, the federal government, more or less, gave up on protecting the rights of African Americans. They betrayed African Americans.That’s why the Compromise of 1877 is also know as the great betrayal.
How Different Life Could have Been for African Americans
Think about what life in the South might have been like had the federal government not given up. Think about the political and economic power that African Americans were amassing in the South. Imagine if blacks had remained a majority in most of the Southern states and did not have to flee the violence of the ku klux klan. Either, the US Senate would be radically different because most of the Southern states would be represented by two African American US Senators. Most, if not all of the Southern states would have black governors. A majority of the congressional representatives from the South would be African American. Blacks would own major American businesses and would have passed on wealth to their offspring over generations. If these concepts could not coexist with white realities in the rest of America, maybe African Americans might have forced some sort of self-rule and independent nation status in the South. Maybe blacks would have accumulated enough wealth to have actually integrated into the US economically.
Perhaps, it would be very different. Perhaps, it would not. But it’s hard not to mourn the lost opportunity of reconstruction – this 12 year period where African Americans had voting rights, had land of their own, and often served in public office. Instead, the United States doomed African American citizens in the South to another almost 100 years of second-class status in our society. All of the problems, world views, stereotypes, and associations we now take for granted would have been different.