"The USDA is lynching us without a rope" --Farmer Eddie Slaughter, from Georgia
Today, First Lady Michelle Obama honored black abolitionist Sojourner Truth in a special ceremony on Capitol Hill. But over at USDA headquarters on the National Mall, a group of black farmers held a rally that Sojourner Truth would have felt perfectly comfortable joining (above).
The National Black Farmers Association, led by Dr. John W. Boyd, Jr., were making a very public call to President Obama to immediately redress decades-old race-based discrimination and civil rights violations within the USDA.
The litany of stories coming from the podium, and being told by the primarily elderly farmers in the crowd, seemed lifted directly from the Jim Crow years--or from the personal diary of Dred Scott.
Over and over, there were stories of blatant racism by USDA officials when dealing with black farmers who were trying to file for the same kind of monetary benefits their white counterparts were given. And though the farmers at the rally were from many different states, including Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Virginia, and the Carolinas, their personal stories of losing land and livelihoods were eerily similar, and illustrated an institutionalized racism that has been enshrined in the culture of USDA. (Boyd speaking, above).
There were also stories from those who work for USDA, detailing racial and gender-biased incidents, and a failure to promote black people, women, the differently abled, and people of color within the agency. The stories were, lightly put, harrowing. The NBFA is a farmers' activist organization based in Virginia, and Boyd has led the group for twelve years.
The NBFA is calling for a reopening of Pigford vs. Glickman, a 1999 monetary settlement that attempted to compensate black farmers for decades of racially discriminatory USDA lending and credit practices. But thousands of farmers missed the original filing deadline to apply for inclusion in Pigford, because they weren't even aware a lawsuit existed. For more than a decade, the USDA has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into legal efforts to block the black farmers from re-opening the Pigford case, money that could've been used to actually settle the case. (NBFA members unroll a scroll with the names of 80,000 black farmers who were locked out of the original Pigford settlement)
During its long fight, the NBFA has been helped by a variety of pro-bono groups--including the Environmental Working Group--in an effort to reopen the suit. At this morning's rally, a huge scroll with the names of some 80,000 locked-out farmers was unrolled, and it stretched a block up the Mall (in pix above). There was fury and excoriation aimed at the United States Department of Justice, and at every Ag Secretary for the last two decades, the individuals and agencies who've trumped the black farmers at every turn.
And now, the wrath of the NBFA is also being aimed at President Obama, because while still a Senator, he'd promised to help the farmers resolve their long battle ...and to date, he still hasn't.
The NBFA, it should be noted, was crucial to the President back when he was on the campaign trail, and they worked hard to get the vote out for him in the South, where the black vote was swinging toward Hillary Clinton (yes, that's difficult to believe today, but the Southern race was incredibly contested). (Above: Farmer Eddie Slaughter at the podium)
Last year, mid-campaign, then-Senator Obama was among a group of lawmakers who got $100 million added to the 2008 Farm Bill, which was to be distributed to those farmers who had been locked out of the original Pigford settlement. This $100 million was supposed to be the beginning of the financial dialogue of redress, but the Department of Justice and USDA has decided that it is all that will be offered. The estimated amount for full compensation is closer to $4 billion, but of course, in these tough economic times, that amount suddenly seems untenable.
But even if the NBFA hadn't helped Mr. Obama become president, the reason for their rally today is fairly incredible, given that it's 2009. Time seems to have stopped for the black farmers, who've lost their land and their livelihoods from being denied the same financial benefits as white farmers. In one of his very first public appearances, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack actually met with black farmers in Albany, Georgia, and referred to the USDA as "the last plantation." But that's the wrong name. Currently, USDA is the first and only plantation. The black farmers' issues need full redress.
White House budget aides have said that President Obama is deeply interested in the concerns of NBFA, and Secretary Vilsack has said the same; he's expanded the duties of USDA's Office of Civil Rights, and swore in a new under secretary last month. The Congressional Black Caucus has thrown their support behind NBFA, too. Things may change for America's black farmers, but they can't wait any longer.
After the rally, the entire group went by foot to Capitol Hill, in the 90 degree weather of a bright DC day, to meet with legislators. Tomorrow, they'll be meeting in conference sessions at the Liaison Capitol Hill Hotel. Conference topics will include "Availability of Federal Funds to Small and Black Farmers" and "The Cost to the Black Farmer of Anti-Competitive Practices in the Bio-Tech Seed and Chemical Industries." Rep. Sanford Bishop (GA, AG Appropriations), and USDA Undersecretary James “Jim” Miller are scheduled to address the group.
*Photos by Obama Foodorama