Bernard Bates, Black farmers leader and fighter to the end

By Eleanor García
February 28, 2022
Bernard Bates, leader of fight by Black farmers to keep their land, shows documents from his legal battles. His dignity, courage and fighting spirit were inspiring to all who knew him.
Kansas News Service/David CondosBernard Bates, leader of fight by Black farmers to keep their land, shows documents from his legal battles. His dignity, courage and fighting spirit were inspiring to all who knew him.

Bernard Bates, a longtime leader in the fight of Black farmers to keep their land, died Jan. 18 in Hays, Kansas. He was 85. He and his wife Ava farmed in Nicodemus, one of a dozen Black farming communities in Northwest Kansas settled by African Americans in the late 1800s after the Civil War and their emancipation. I had the great fortune to join with them in some of their struggles.

Bernard’s great-great-grandparents had been slaves who were moved from Kentucky to Missouri in 1850. At the end of the Civil War the Bates family, along with other emancipated families, settled in Leavenworth, Kansas. Bernard’s great-grandfather Perry, who fought as a volunteer with the U.S. colored infantry, bought land in Nicodemus toward the end of the 1800s. More than 40,000 African Americans made the journey to Kansas 1879-80, after the overthrow of Radical Reconstruction.

A workers and farmers alliance

In October 1983, Bernard and Ava Bates and their family — they raised five children — were joined by 300 farmers, trade unionists and members of the Black community in a march to Graham County Courthouse in Hill City, Kansas, to protest the government foreclosure sale on 240 acres of their 950-acre farm. Caucasian farmers from Central and Midwest states and trade unionists from throughout the area came in solidarity.

Graham County Sheriff Don Scott pushed the sale through, backed by state police deployed along the three sides of the U-shaped building and on the rooftops. With fire hoses in the rear, they closed off the entrance. This experience impacted many at the protest — myself included — both on the forces of the state marshaled against the demonstration and, more importantly, the powerful example of united Black and Caucasian farmers and the farmer-labor alliance being built.

One month later Ava Bates and Phelps Dodge copper striker Jim Krass, from United Steelworkers Local 616 in Morenci, Arizona, were the featured speakers at Farmer-Labor Solidarity and Survival Day events in the Twin Cities and on the Iron Range in Minnesota. The tour was endorsed by the Iron Range Labor Assembly, the North American Farm Alliance and other farm organizations and unions.

These events grew out of a call for nationwide protests against the capitalist economic crisis driving family farmers off the land. Farmers from Minnesota and Wisconsin donated hundreds of pounds of food for the event and for workers on the Iron Range, where 12,000 miners, members of the United Steelworkers union, were out of work due to long-term shutdowns by the steel bosses.

Workers and farmers discussed the need to support each other’s struggles, that this was the only way to make progress. The Bates continued to participate in struggles, discussions and debates on how best to fight.

In 1988 the Bates’ remaining farmland, farm equipment, and even their harvested wheat crop were foreclosed on, as has happened to tens of thousands of Black and Caucasian farmers over the last few decades.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and local farm credit offices have denied generations of Black farmers loans and foreclosed on their properties. In 2012 the former president of the local credit association where the Bates lived signed an affidavit affirming that the lender’s board of directors, the federal land bank, and the local USDA office had colluded together “to get Bernard out of farming.” He said they had decided that they would “rather foreclose, even if they lost money, rather than to take Bernard’s money.”

Like many farmers, Bernard Bates worked in factories at times to try to make ends meet. He worked as a forklift operator in a roofing materials factory until he was injured on the job, but he never stopped fighting to get his land back or to get paid reparations. Because of his reputation as a fighter and leader, other Black farmers and others in the Nicodemus community would come to him for help and he was able to get them their money.

Bernard Bates was one of the original plaintiffs in Pigford v. Glickman, a discrimination case whose settlement in 1999 was supposed to send more than $1 billion to Black farmers who had been victims of discrimination by the USDA. Despite the victory, he never received a penny.

Small farmers and workers today face a devastating crisis wrought by the deepening political crisis of the capitalist ruling class. Stagnation and inflation are worsening at the same time. The worker-farmer alliance that Bernard and Ava Bates were part of building in the 1980s is an example we can build on as inevitable new struggles unfold.

In a phone call I had with Ava and Bernard in December, almost 40 years later, occasioned by an article in the Nation about their continuing activity in the farm struggle, we talked about the 1980s protests, the tour, and the farmers and trade unionists who came together, and their relevance to what is unfolding in politics today.

Bernard Bates’ dignity, courage and drive to keep fighting to hold onto his land remains an inspiration to farmers, workers and others who knew him. It will continue to inspire others to take up the fight. This is the best legacy anyone can leave.