Iowa Public Television

 

Black Farmers Still Looking for Justice

posted on February 15, 2008


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In the wake of a 4-year 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.

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

Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made racial discrimination illegal, thousands of black farmers contend they've been 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 $2.3 billion settlement. But some litigants are optimistic the next Farm Bill will address their plight. Andrew Batt explains.

 

From the post-slavery policy of 40 acres and a mule, to the 21st century fight for minority farm loans…history has not been kind to black farmers.

John Boyd, President National Black Farmer Association: "Congress can put law in place to protect the bald eagle, the rockfish, the snail darter, the brown bear, and they won't put laws in place to protect the oldest occupation in history for Black people which is farming."

For more than a decade, John Boyd has fought toe-to-toe with the U.S. government – specifically the Department of Agriculture.

John Boyd (protesting outside USDA): "How many times is it gonna take for the United States Department of Agriculture to know that we mean business and we're not gonna stop until they get off the dime and settle these cases."

Citing widespread, long-term racial discrimination against black farmers by USDA officials, Boyd and thousands of African-Americans have spent much of the last ten years protesting.

Dan Glickman, Agriculture Secretary: "We are here to announce an historic agreement for both the USDA and, I believe, for our country. It is an agreement that will close a painful chapter in USDA's history and open a more constructive front in our efforts to see this department emerge as the federal civil rights leader in the 21st century."

USDA settled with black farmers and agreed to pay a record $2.3 billion. But a 2004 independent investigation by the Environmental Working Group discovered an overwhelming number of applicants were denied any legal remedy.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan: "We have 90% of the claims being denied and 65,000 farmers turned away. Now look folks, that isn't justice."

In September 2004, the House Judiciary Committee held hearings to determine why nearly nine out of every ten applicants were denied access to the settlement.

Alexander Pires, Class Counsel, Pigford v. Glickman: "Well you had to find a white farmer that lived nearby and received better treatment than you. I must admit this was the toughest segment to prove."

As black farmers struggled to obtain financial information about their white neighbors, lead counsel Alexander Pires said there simply weren't enough lawyers to take care of all applicants.

Alexander Pires, Class Counsel, Pigford v. Glickman: "We studied all of the class action cases and there is no case in the history of this country where an individual person in a class action case has gotten more money."

While some applicants received a flat $50,000 tax-free payment, the vast majority never received a dime from the federal government. An overwhelming number of farmers were dubbed "late filers" by USDA when their applications trickled into office inboxes after a 180-day deadline.

Tens of thousands of black farmers claim they did NOT receive proper notification of the settlement and that an independent USDA monitor failed to judge their applications "on the merits" of their claims.

Government officials say they did more than enough to notify farmers…running ads in over sixty newspapers and airing two-weeks of television commercials and radio announcements.

But when Market to Market caught up with National Black Farmers President John Boyd at his group's annual conference in Dallas, he blasted that defense.

Boyd: "A lot of these people are not reading those publications. They say hey, can you help me fill this out? They're not gonna come up to you and tell you man, I can't read and write."

Boyd knows all too well about racial discrimination by local farm loan officers. The native Virginian, who holds a P.H.D in agricultural economics, painfully recalled a USDA investigation reminiscent of the 1960's civil rights movement – except it took place in the heart of the 1990's.

Boyd: "…and when they came out to investigate him. They said - Did you throw Mr. Boyd's application in the trashcan Mr. Garnet? Guess what he said. Well, yeah I threw it in the trashcan. They said - Well ah, you only made two farm loans out of one hundred fifty-seven loans in your office. Do you have trouble making loans to Black Farmers? Well, yeah. I think they're lazy and want a paycheck on Friday, but that has nothing with me doing my job. That's just the way I feel personally. He wasn't fired. He wasn't terminated. He was moved to assist a county nearby and he was allowed to retire."

Market to Market spoke with many black farmers throughout their annual conference and multiple stories echoed Boyd's claims as farmers were disgusted by what they deemed "blatant discrimination."

George Roberts: "They looked across the fence and they see the white neighbors over there driving nice tractors, got nice cattle and stuff, making life easier, and they often ask why can't that be us?"

George Roberts was one of the 13,000 successful applicants to the Pigford vs. Glickman settlement. Even though the federal government awarded Roberts $50,000, he says the money pales in comparison to years of high-interest loans that buried him in serious debt. At his Oklahoma farmstead, Roberts said he was too frustrated to keep fighting for other farmers… including his own family.

Roberts: "I've told my kids not to get into farming…there's no money in it. And after what USDA has done over the years…why would ya?"

Market to Market attempted to bring these charges of discrimination to USDA's top civil rights official – Margo McKay. Mckay responded with a letter stating that "the Pigford case is ongoing" and forwarded any questions to the USDA Office of General Counsel.

After the OGC denied our request for an interview, USDA Press Secretary Keith Williams stated: "Out of fairness to everyone we are not going to do anything to hold this up. Out of fairness we will not go on television."

Regional USDA officials and farm loan officers at the annual black farmers' conference also declined interviews with Market to Market. According to Boyd and other farmers, the lack of communication by USDA is not surprising. Some farmers said they stopped listening to USDA promises long ago and any new guarantees - even from Ag Sec. Mike Johanns himself -won't heal the damage.

Guy Manning Sr.: "It's just like warming up old milk. You warm it so many times that there's no substance in it after a certain period of time. Even if they were telling the truth. There are people, in fact, I voucher to say 95% of the people in the building would not believe him."

Those sentiments aside, help may be on the way for over 80,000 applicants denied access to the Pigford settlement.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa: "I had hoped this day would never come. Not because these farmers don't deserve justice, but because we would have already taken care of justice for every one of them."

A bipartisan team of lawmakers has pushed legislation into the upcoming farm bill that could give black farmers the opportunity to reapply for financial damages. But the bill's language does not guarantee any federal payments… merely a chance for an independent monitor to review claims by their merits.

Boyd: "This is not just another day on Capitol Hill. It's a very historic day because not often do you see bipartisan support from both houses with Republicans and Democrats working together to bring fairness to black farmers."

As the U.S. House and Senate hammer out differences over the 2007 farm bill it's still unclear whether black farmers will be granted another chance at redemption. Iowa Republican Charles Grassley is troubled by claims that the USDA Office of Civil Rights has been unfairly discriminating against farmers as recently as 2007. Grassley has called for new congressional oversight hearings on the Civil Rights office sometime this year.

But as congressional wrangling continues on Capitol Hill, men like George Roberts can only wait for an answer and insist that any chance to fix mistakes made by USDA is a step forward.

George Roberts: "I think it's the best thing to give everyone a chance, and that's all the black man ever wanted was a chance."

For Market to Market, I'm Andrew Batt.

 


Tags: activism African Americans agriculture civil rights farmers Iowa news racism