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Congress Eyes Legislation for Black Farmers

posted on February 9, 2007

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. And many viewed the act as confirmation they truly owned a share of the land on which they had toiled for generations.

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, but say black farmers received only a portion of the $2.3 billion settlement.

This week, a group of Washington power brokers from both sides of the aisle vowed to address the issue.

Congress Eyes Legislation for Black Farmers

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 group of lawmakers met on Capitol Hill this week to introduce legislation for black farmers. The legislation takes aim at decades of racial discrimination allegations between black farmers and USDA.

The farmers received a landmark settlement in 1999 but years of legal disputes and technical errors by applicants have led to a stalemate in the case. If passed, the legislation would give black farmers the opportunity to reapply for financial damages.

Rep. Robert Scott, D-Virginia: "The fact that discrimination took place has been widely acknowledged and I think the settlement was a great step forward. Something happened in the case and you can place blame whomever you want but 75% of the people that filed were not able to get there cases heard because of this procedural snafu."

Dr. John Boyd, President, National Black Farmers Association: "I do think in the overall perspective the Department has failed…"

National Black Farmers President John Boyd has been a familiar face of the discrimination lawsuit since the original claim in 1997. Boyd and other black farmers have held annual protests outside the Department of Agriculture hoping to bring final resolution to the case.

Dr. John Boyd, President, National Black Farmers Association: "This has been a long drawn out fight for black farmers across the country. 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."

Bipartisan support in the Senate comes from Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Charles Grassley while Republican Steve Chabot and Democrat Robert Scott will sponsor the legislation on the House floor.

Grassley expects a lengthy debate on the bill as part of the overall farm bill discussions this year. The Iowa Senator also emphasized justice should not be defined by regional differences.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa: "People often ask me why a Senator from Iowa would get involved in this issue. There aren't many black farmers in Iowa, I think I've known one in my period of time. But justice knows no state line."


Tags: African Americans agriculture Congress farmers government news race