The farmers are marching to protest worsening conditions they face; refusal of the government to implement a March 1999 consent decree settlement that is supposed to award damages to farmers who have suffered racist discrimination by the government; and continuing harassment at the hands of government farm agency representatives.
Melvin Bishop, a cattle farmer and president of the Georgia chapter of BFAA, said, "Working people in the cities have a stake in the fight of the Black farmers. Georgia BFAA is organizing to let working people know that the lawsuit is not settled, that we haven't got the money in our hands."
The farmers and their supporters will be leading off the annual King Day March in Atlanta. The day is a federal holiday, won through massive protests and the only one to honor an African-American. The Atlanta parade is a sizable event each year, and the farmers' struggle will add a political and fighting aspect to the celebrations as a whole.
Bishop said the farmers will form up their contingent January 17 at 11:00 a.m. at Peachtree and Ellis Streets in downtown Atlanta. The march will step off at 1:00 p.m. and rally at the King Center on Auburn Avenue around 2:30 p.m.
"Prior to the march there will be a 9:00 a.m. breakfast meeting at the First Iconium Baptist Church on Moreland Avenue," Bishop added.
The government signed the consent decree and touted it as a victory for farmers against racist discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Through their struggle the farmers forced the government to admit extensive racist practices that crippled the ability of thousands of farmers who are Black to remain on the land. Under terms of the ruling the government was to pay plaintiff farmers $50,000 each. Few farmers have in fact received any money to date.
In a phone interview, Gary Grant, president of BFAA, said, "My understanding is we will be a lead contingent in the march. This call for action is for Black farmers to join in the King Day march and celebrations to help bring forth to national attention the second time the check has been mailed and returned marked 'insufficient funds.' Too many Black farmers are being denied payment."
Recent articles in the big-business press, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, have presented a picture of a settled fight. Jet magazine, for example, ran an article on December 13 entitled, "Black Farmers Receive Settlement Checks in Class-Action Lawsuit." The magazine asserts that some 2,400 farmers have received checks. But of the original six plaintiffs only two have received any compensation.
Tim Pigford, for whom the suit against the USDA Pigford v. Glickman is named, has not received a cent.
Sherman Witcher, a tobacco farmer from Rocky Mount, Virginia, said the march "is a much needed event to increase awareness in the whole country - not only for Black farmers but also for whites as well - if we are to get anywhere."
Tobacco farmers continue to be hit by the government system of quotas, a system that regulates how much tobacco they are allowed to grow. "Farmers know how to weather storms," Witcher said, "but there is only so much you can weather if you have no financing. Eight years ago when I started this fight I was told I didn't have a leg to stand on and to go home.
"Now I'm standing on both legs and they are running! The government and the bill collectors keep telling me, 'You and your brother you each have to just look out for yourself.' I say, 'No! Me and my brother have to look out for each other!'"
Witcher, who has been denied loans and has been unable to farm for the past several years, is a plaintiff in the farmers' class-action suit.
The idea for the march originated at the end of the successful December 13 farm protest in Washington, D.C., which was called by BFAA and the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA). Farmers present also called for another protest in Washington at the end of February.
The annual Martin Luther King day celebration honors the contributions of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., in the fight against racist discrimination and for Black equality in this country. The event is sponsored by the King Day Committee.
Mary Martin is a member of International Association of Machinists Local 1759.
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