Slavery caused the Civil War. A failure to compromise had nothing to do with it.
Yes, I know a thousand people have made that point in the days since White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s nonsensical assertion on Fox “News” that “the lack of an ability to compromise” is what tore America apart. Allow me to be the 1,001st. There are things that need saying here, and I need to say them.
It’s not just that there is no “compromise” between slavery and freedom. It is also that Kelly’s use of that word is painfully ironic in a nation that has always been all too ready to bargain with the humanity of African-American people.
In 1776, in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson condemned slavery. Southern states balked, so he compromised.
In 1820, North and South argued whether the new state of Missouri would permit slavery. Congress intervened, and they compromised.
In 1877, there was a disputed election. Someone suggested giving the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes if he agreed to withdraw federal troops that had been protecting former slaves in the South. The two sides compromised.
In 1961, the Freedom Riders pulled into Mississippi. The federal government made a deal with the state that if Mississippi guaranteed no violence, it could arrest the riders, though they had done nothing illegal. They compromised.
And so on. Historically, America always seems to find a way to sell black people out.
Kelly is just the latest in a long line of those who lack the guts to face this straight on. They hide out in textbooks where slaves become “settlers,” flee from “Roots” because it is “depressing.” And they insist on moral equivalence between people sellers and the people they sold, lynchers and the people they lynched, traitors who fought to destroy America and patriots who fought to preserve it.
“Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” added Kelly in the Fox interview – an interesting take for a military man on an enemy general in a war that killed more Americans than Hitler, Hirohito and Bin Laden combined.
“All of our leaders have flaws,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders in defending Kelly. As if Lee’s ordering two men and a woman stripped to the waist and whipped (“Lay it on well,” he said) for the crime of seeking freedom was in the same moral universe as Barack Obama’s cigarette jones.
I can anticipate how all this will land among certain people. They’ll call it “racist.” They’ll call it “divisive.” They’ll call it everything but untrue.
They are, you see, deeply invested in the myth that struggles with poverty, mass incarceration, joblessness and miseducation arise from something African-Americans chose or did, while the rest of the country, innocent as the dawn, did nothing to cause or benefit from any of it. They will be angry at the reminder that this is ridiculous.
As if this was about them. As if we should give a damn about their anger.
This country stole from black people. It stole their bodies, their children, their names, their land, their lives. Now, some of us seek to steal the very memory of the crime.
Well, let them tell a thousand lies. Let them treat truth like the money card in a game of three-card monte. Let them salve history with the balm of false equivalence. But let them know that some of us find strength for our own trials in knowing the trials of our mothers and fathers.
So we will not be fooled and we will not be robbed.
We will remember – and demand they do the same.
Leonard Pitts Jr. can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.