The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 67/No. 45           December 22, 2003  
Black farmers in U.S. South demand
land, end to racist discrimination
(front page)
RICHMOND, Virginia—More than 250 farmers and their supporters met here December 6 to discuss their fight against decades-long racist discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to prevent further land loss by farmers who are Black. The majority came from Virginia. Others came from as far away as Florida, Georgia, Iowa, and Kansas. Similar meetings in Albany, Georgia, and Montgomery, Alabama, were held in November.

Over the past four years, organizations of Black farmers have held gatherings like these in several southern states to press for implementation of a 1999 consent decree between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and farmers who had filed a class-action lawsuit against the government. By signing the decree in Pigford v. Glickman and settling the suit out of court, the government admitted to a pattern of racist discrimination by the USDA and its field offices in rural counties in processing loans and providing other services to farmers. At the same time, Washington tried to defuse the farmers’ struggle for land, which had assumed significant proportions at the end of the 1990s.

When a U.S. district judge approved the consent decree on April 14, 1999, farmers were told that if they met minimal requirements for proving discrimination they would receive $50,000 tax-free from the government. Four and a half years later, only 13,000 of the 22,000 eligible farmers have received payment of any kind.

“We are going to keep the struggle going,” said James Lyle, a hog farmer from Pamplin, Virginia, and an activist in the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association, Inc. (BFAA, Inc.), which organized the Richmond meeting. “It has always been a struggle. We thought that Pigford v. Glickman would solve all the problems. We thought justice would come from the Justice Department. We took our attorneys at face value. We thought everyone had our best interests at heart—but we bought a bill of goods. So we just keep fighting—no promise other than that.”

“The USDA admitted discrimination—but farmers did not get relief,” said Thomas Burrell, national president of BFAA, Inc. “This was supposed to be our ‘40 acres and a mule.’ But they put you and me behind the mule instead. Whether you were paid in the lawsuit, were turned down, filed late, or were folk who did not know there was a lawsuit until now—it doesn’t matter. We are all on the same train and it has been derailed. Ask yourself this—since April 14, 1999, have you experienced discrimination? Can you get an operating loan today? Can you plant your crops? Can you farm?”

The number of Black farmers in the United States fell from 900,000 in 1920 to 18,000 in 1998, shortly before the consent decree was issued. In 1992, Blacks owned 1 percent of the country’s farmland—down from 14 percent in 1920.

Burrell said that BFAA, Inc. is signing up thousands of farmers to fill out a questionnaire and petition to document that the consent decree and its implementation did not give redress to the discrimination and lack of dignity that farmers are fighting against. He explained that the statute of limitations on the settlement expires in April 2004. “We need to convince a federal judge to stop the clock.”

The 45-point questionnaire seeks to determine whether the USDA is trying to foreclose or will foreclose if a farmer does not prevail in the lawsuit; whether a farmer’s claim was denied because he or she “failed” to name a similarly situated white farmer who did receive loans or other assistance; if the FBI harassed farmers involved in the lawsuit, and if payments were made to the farmer or to the Internal Revenue Service.

Another issue the questionnaire takes up is injunctive relief. Under the terms of the settlement, farmers were promised preferential treatment for one direct operating loan and for one loan to buy farmland at any time up to five years after the settlement date. According to Richard Howell, co-counsel of BFAA, Inc., there are no cases where the USDA carried out this provision.

Perry Roberts, a hog farmer and leader of the Southside Black Farmers Association of Emporia, Virginia, learned about the meeting from his wife who read about it in a local newspaper. He and a fellow member of the organization left the gathering with a stack of questionnaires to distribute to the 30 farmers in their group. Roberts said he was one of three farmers in his area to receive the settlement. “But it didn’t help,” he said. “It put me in another tax bracket and meant I had to pay $5,000 more in taxes.”

Aldon Jarrett, from Mount Dora, Florida, was forced to sell his 20-acre chicken farm to survive. “Now it’s a golf course,” he stated. According to Jarrett, farmers are experiencing increased foreclosures. “Two weeks ago, a young Black farmer from Oakley, Kansas, with a 2,400-acre farm was foreclosed on,” he said. “But it is not just Black farmers. All small farmers are hurting. In fact, everyone who needs governmental relief is under attack. The U.S. government is going after social security, Medicare, and everything else that they can identify as funds that are for us.”

BFAA, Inc. will be organizing similar meetings in January in Sumter, South Carolina, and Monroe, Louisiana.

Willie Cotton from Atlanta and Nancy Boyasko from Washington, D.C., contributed to this article.  
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