Iowa Public Television


Black Farmers Still Waiting on U.S. Government

posted on August 6, 2010

In the wake of a Civil War that claimed the lives of more than 600,000 Americans, President Lincoln warned the nation that "Reconstruction," as he called it, would be "fraught with difficulty." For millions of southern blacks, that's proven to be an understatement.

In 1865, the government promised "forty acres and a mule" to thousands of newly freed slaves. But all was not necessarily "equal" in farm country.

A century after the war ended, the Civil Rights Act banned racial discrimination. Nevertheless, thousands of black farmers claimed they were systematically denied federal loans and subsidies for decades. In 1999, they won a landmark civil rights settlement with USDA.

To this day though, thousands of black farmers say they've never received a penny of the record $2 billion settlement -- in part -- because Congress has never fully funded the decree. But late Thursday, for the 7th time in recent weeks, with the clock counting down to an August recess, the Senate, once again, considered the appropriation.

Sen. Bryon Dorgan, D - North Dakota: "I came to the floor today to offer unanimous consent request to see if at last -- at long last -- we might put this behind us and do what is the fair thing."

Because appropriating funds for the record $2.3 billion civil rights settlement was offered under unanimous consent, the measure would need the support of 100% of lawmakers in the Senate chamber.

But at least one Senator took exception with language in the measure that capped attorney fees at in a wide range between $50 million and $100 million.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming: "The majority leader dismissed my amendment, and he called it the "beat up the lawyers amendment." Well, madam president, he called it that because one of the provisions in the amendment establishes a $50 million cap on pre-settlement attorney's fees. $50 million. The settlement says it should be between $50 million and $100 million. My amendment said let's keep it at that lower figure. Only in Washington, D.C. would anyone ever call a $50 million cap on attorneys' fees, $50 million of attorneys' fees as "beating up" the lawyers.

Numerous lawmakers from both sides of the aisle pleaded with their colleagues to act on behalf of America's black farmers.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Arkansas: "It is incumbent on the members of congress to demonstrate the leadership, to correct this injustice, and to pass this legislation. if not today, when? "

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa: "Today we have an opportunity to finally take care of this situation of bringing justice to black farmers who have been waiting for decades to settle their discrimination claims against the Department of Agriculture. We know that USDA has admitted that the discrimination occurred and now we're obligated to do our best in getting relief to those that deserve it. It's time to make these claimants right and move forward into a new era of civil rights in the Department of Agriculture."

But, despite impassioned pleas, in the waning hours before the Senate's August recess, gridlock ruled the day, as the measure failed to earn unanimous consent.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota: "Mr. President, I ask for unanimous consent."

Senate president: "Is there any objection to the request?

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming: "I object."

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota: "Mr. President, let me say again, how extraordinary disappointed I am. Now if we don't like the way that we negotiation developed and then don't support the settlement, and believe we can do better, well then we object. So we don't get this done. That's happened six times this year. Over and over and over again, we've failed to act."

The Senate will reconvene on September 13th, but it remains to be seen when it will consider funding the settlement.


Tags: African Americans agriculture Barack Obama civil rights farmers loans news presidents protests race racism Tom Vilsack