Iowa Public Television


Black Farmers Testify at Congressional Hearing

posted on October 1, 2004

The charges are anything but new. After years of investigation and litigation, the federal government entered into a civil rights settlement with thousands of black farmers in 1999. The decree could have cost the feds billions of dollars in damages.

But a study released in July by the Environmental Working Group revealed more than 80 percent of the 96,000 black farmers seeking restitution under the landmark settlement were denied.

Frustrated black farmers this week took their case to the streets of Washington, as well as to the court of public opinion ... charging the government with discrimination and obstruction of justice.

Black Farmers Testify at Congressional Hearing On Tuesday, about 75 demonstrators marched to the Agriculture Department claiming USDA denied federal loans and subsidies to black farmers for decades.

John Boyd, President, Black Farmers Association: "We've been fighting this fight for a long time. And we're here today to say that after five years of a national settlement that many black -- thousands of black farmers still haven't received their compensation and we need for the Agriculture Department to really get off the dime and take this issue seriously.

USDA is quick to point out that 72,000, claims were denied because the applications were filed late. The decision to reject late applications was made by an independent arbitrator and NOT by the government. Nevertheless, USDA is responding to the charges.

Vernon Parker, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, USDA: "We've made substantial changes in the loan programs, we've made substantial changes in customer service. We have a proposed change on the county committee system, which is huge, where we will now the Secretary has the authority to appoint voting members who are minorities.

Ultimately, what the demonstrators want is for the 1999 civil rights settlement to be modified so that nearly 65,000 black farmers could be heard in what has been called the largest civil rights case in U.S. history. The only problem is that neither USDA nor the Arbitrator have the authority to revise the terms of the settlement. But Congress does -- and later in the day the black farmers aired their case before the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution.

Phillip Haynie II, Heathsville, Virginia: "On September 14, 1867 my great grandfather, Robert Haynie purchased 60 acres of land in Heathsville, Virginia. It was the first purchase of land by a former slave in Northumberland County. I am about to lose part of this land that I inherited due to the discriminatory practices of the USDA.

The arbitrator and a court-appointed monitor also testified at the hearing. In general, both said the terms of the settlement were being honored.

Randi Roth, Court-Appointed Monitor: "Claims are being processed, prevailing claimants are being paid, debt relief is being awarded and injunctive relief rights are being honored.

Nevertheless, it was clear members of the subcommittee and the Congressional Black Caucus support giving disenfranchised black farmers a voice in the process.

Rep. John Chabot, R- Ohio; Chairman, House Judiciary Committee Constitution Subcommittee: "We will never be able to put the racially discriminatory practices that have occurred and continue to occur within the USDA behind us until every one of these individuals has at least had the opportunity to be heard."

Tags: African Americans agriculture civil rights farmers government news race USDA