Correcting The Record On The "3/5s Compromise"

Friday, May 7, 2021

Members of the Tennessee State Legislature:

We are writing today to voice our disdain and dismay over the offensive comments given by Rep. Justin Lafferty, who stated on the House Floor in reference to the Three-Fifths Compromise that it, "was a direct effort to ensure that southern states never got the population necessary to continue the practice of slavery everywhere else in the country." He then implied this was for the purpose of ending slavery. Other legislators were complicit in this effort by giving Rep. Lafferty a thunderous applause at the conclusion of his polarizing and offensive comments. 

We would like to set the historical record straight on a few matters of contention.  First, the institution of slavery was America's original sin. Through the similarly abhorrent practices of Imperialism and Colonialism, members of the human family were captured; imprisoned; tormented as they boarded disease infected vessels during the Atlantic Slave trade where millions perished during this Middle Passage; were placed on auction blocks where they were traded and bartered according to physical features; were given new names, beliefs and forced into cultural assimilation; were regarded as economic property; served as domestic laborers who worked for no pay, were lent to the service of others; or were sold outright, despite having  families and semi-autonomous communities. 

 A familiar story that is native to Tennessee that clearly illustrates these sins against humanity is Alex Haley's Roots. It tells the story of Kunta Kinte, who lived out many of the experiences described above. It is an award winning book that sparked an award winning miniseries. The Alex Hayley house in Henning, Tn. is part of the Tennessee Historical Marker system. In case the copy of this book is checked out at the library and archives, we'd be glad to forward you a copy to all legislators at the earliest possible opportunity. It is one of the most definitive works on the horrors of slavery ever produced in this nation.

Moreover, at the Constitutional Convention itself, the delegates argued over two weeks on how to deal with this peculiar institution. Were slaves to be fully counted as one whole person and dare to believe they were equal to everyone? Should they be regarded as property and possessions, like axes, mules and plows? Do you only count male slaves? Along the course of that intense and extensive debate it was decided to appease the Southern delegates and to count the slave as three-fifths of a person so that they might gain more advantageous voting position in the yet to be unseated Congress. 

We do concede to Rep. Lafferty, that the Convention did vote to outlaw the Atlantic slave trade by 1808. Yet they were already late in this endeavor because we see that William Wilberforce had been working on banning slavery in England for nearly 20 long years. We can also witness that there were many in America who stood for abolition and manumission, including several of those serving at that very Constitutional Convention. 

Likewise, to assert that the Three-Fifths Compromise served as a precursor to ending slavery is just a disingenuous falsehood, as fallacious as the revisionist arguments put forth by the Dunning School after the Civil War.  Along the course of the next half century, America almost tore at the seams because of the institution.  That is why you had a Missouri Compromise; Nullification Crisis; Compromise of 1850; Bleeding Kansas; and four long and bloody years of Civil War.

And even when the question had been decided on the battlefield, the inferiority index was again put into place with the ‘Deconstruction of Reconstruction’; black codes; Jim Crow, Separate but Equal; and segregation.  Also as a byproduct of this was the implementation of a mass incarceration system that many like Michelle Alexander has branded as slavery by another name and the new Jim Crow because of the disproportionate arrest, conviction and incarceration of people of color, as well as a for-profit prison industry that rakes in over $200 billion a year.

So we must say to Rep. Lafferty and all of those who struck up the band in cheering him on over these comments, your actions are demeaning, debasing, and dehumanizing.  Your caricature is unfit, unjust, and unbecoming. The good book puts it this way, "Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people." Slavery was an inhumane practice which was rooted in an immoral principle, the complete an utter subjugation of human beings that were forced to bow down to a superior class. We say repent of these transgressions and offer and issue an immediate retraction of these comments to the citizens of this state and international community who now believe these comments are representative of the State of Tennessee. 

Finally, we at the Tennessee Poor People's Campaign will continue to stand against this type of systemic racism. We stand against abject poverty; it was shameful that the Legislature cut unemployment benefits at a time when we sit on a record surplus while simultaneously voting yourselves a raise.  We reject the false narrative you have sought to profess.  And yet, we do see some light of hope because we know the hearts of people can be changed.  John Newton was once a slave ship trader. He then had a conversion of faith. He would be moved to pen Amazing Grace as a testament to his coming out of the darkness and into the marvelous light.  It is our prayer and hope that Rep. Lafferty, and this legislature that has been so deeply intertwined in harming the people of this land, may begin to undertake such a change.  Somebody is hurting our people. It’s gone on far too long. And we can't be silent anymore. 

Forward Together, Not One Step Back,
The Tennessee Poor People's Campaign
Eric Atkins, Rev. Gordon Myers, Amanda Messick, Lisa Rung, Brady Watson, Cynthia Parker, Rev. Edith A. Love, Lakethen Mason, Judith Pedersen-Benn, Rev. Tricia Dillon Thomas, Mary Bricker-Jenkins Linda Cataldo Modica

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