Q&A: Justice for Black Farmers

On October 27, after a 15-year fight, a federal judge approved a $1.25 billion settlement to black farmers discriminated against by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In 1997, hundreds of farmers filed a class-action suit, in the case Pigford v. Glickman, alleging pervasive discrimination of black farmers by the USDA between 1981 and 1997. For decades, the department, which regularly gives loans to farmers to keep their business afloat, had refused loans to black farmers while awarding greater loans to white farmers of equal standing. Because of an inability to receive loans, many black farmers were forced to forfeit their farms or operate on a smaller scale. In 1999, the judge demanded a settlement for those with claims. More than 40,000 farmers with documented claims joined the suit following the first decision, necessitating a revisiting of the case approved in the 2008 farm bill, which ultimately awarded $100 million toward the settlement. In November 2010, Congress approved, and President Barack Obama signed an order appropriating the additional $1.15 billion. The American Prospect spoke with John Boyd Jr., founder of the National Black Farmers Association. Discriminated against by the USDA as a young farmer, he established the association in 1995. For the next 16 years, he organized the class-action suit and lobbied Congress for the funding recently awarded.

Can you give some background on this case and the discrimination claims against the USDA?

The discrimination goes on a lot further back than what the claims this decision would actually allow for. Most of the land loss that occurred through the U.S. Department of Agriculture was in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The discrimination was very pervasive; blacks were denied loan applications where they did not take part on the county committees, which are the three-member panels that make decisions on farm loans in each county, run by the USDA.

In my own personal case, in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, I thought my county supervisor, Mr. [James] Garnett, didn’t like me because of the downward and negative way he was talking to me. One time he tore my application up and threw it in the trash. He said, “I’m not going to lend you any of my money.” One time, one of his friends, who was a white farmer, came in and Mr. Garnett gave the farmer a $157,000 farm-operating check. This farmer who never even applied was picking up a check. I was in that office literally begging Mr. Garnett for a $7,000 loan request. This went on for about nine or ten years.

All of the farmers in my community went on Wednesday so we called it black Wednesday; it was the only day Mr. Garnett saw black farmers. I tried to apply every year like any other farmer would and he said, “No, I’m not going to lend you any money, and you might just as well sell your farm to [another prominent white farmer] like I told you, and he’s going to allow you to milk cows on his farm. Sign the deed to [him], and we won’t come after you for any past debts.” He went to spit in his spit can, and he spit on my shirt. For the first time in my life, I felt less than a man, because I felt defenseless.

Some years went by, and I was speaking at a local event and the state person for civil rights for USDA was listening and asked if I filed any complaints. I said I filed about four complaints on Mr. Garnett, never heard a word. They went out and investigated Mr. Garnett.

He was using the system to take land and give it to those on the county committee, and his friends and the community. It was a legalized way to take a lot of land away from black farmers.

Can you talk about the importance of Pigford v. Glickman and what it means for future discrimination cases?

This is a very historic case. This was one of the last civil-rights cases about a black issue. We had a triangle going. We had the legal system, the advocacy, and the actual plaintiffs out there telling their stories. When we first began to organize in the late ’90s, we got the first settlement, and we thought we were well on our way to changing USDA. I see this case as a historic measure. Years later, people will look at this case and see what really happened to black farmers.

The last few years have been tough economically. What do you hope that this settlement will achieve for the farmers who had claims?

For me, it’s kind of bittersweet because a lot of the farmers who originally helped me organize and strategize the whole movement are now dead. The settlement came long after I thought it would. I thought the settlement would have happened in 2001 or 2002, but it took me eight years on Capitol Hill to get [the settlement] in the farm bill. President Obama, then Senator Obama, took a leadership role after Ted Kennedy got sick.

For the average black farmer, this settlement could be night and day. Fifty thousand dollars isn’t an enormous amount of money, but for someone in the [Mississippi] Delta who still doesn’t have running water, this settlement could make a difference in their living a more comfortable life in the coming years.

The conservative media has been really worked up about this case. Why do you think it has become a big issue for the right, particularly Tea Party leaders like Michele Bachmann and Steve King who have called the claims “fraudulent”?

I think that they’ve named themselves racist by saying the things that they say about black farmers. At the 99th hour, after the bill is getting ready to pass, all of a sudden we were frauds. We weren’t frauds 30 years ago, we weren’t frauds five years ago, and it’s because of the fact that they don’t want to see redress to the nation’s black farmers. Michele Bachmann and Steve King even went so far as to say to give the compensation to the [Iowa] flood victims. That they say that black farmers don’t deserve any redress to me is a real scar on American history and race relations in this country.

You founded the National Black Farmers Association in 1995. This was part of your organizing. Where do you see the organization going now that this chapter has ended?

I see us playing more of a role in policy, related to issues in the farm bill. I’m looking to change the total layout of the farm-subsidy program. There should be caps. The top 10 percent of large-scale corporate farmers and large-scale white male farmers receive $1 million per farmer. The top 3 percent receive over $3 million per farmer. The average subsidy payment to a black farmer is $200. I’m looking at doing more international trade and more contracts for small-scale farmers and black farmers, and I think that’s going to be the way of the future.

What do you see as the greatest legacy of this case?

The greatest legacy of this case is a group of poor black farmers organizing to take on the government. This case was filed just about in every state in the South. In Virginia, a judge asked the government to settle those cases individually. But we wanted a class. We were lucky enough to get a judge that was fair. So in between there and legislation, all Judge Friedman had to do was say it was OK with him. The president had already signed it. Congress had approved it. This is one case where the lawyers can’t say they’ve done it. This was not a case tried out of court—this was a case tried in the public eye, in the halls of Congress, right up to the presidency.

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