President promises "swift resolution"
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has announced a deal to end the Pigford case, a decades-old discrimination lawsuit brought by black farmers against USDA. A $1.25 billion fund to compensate the farmers has been created, and Administration officials believe that Congress can be convinced to act rapidly for approval, and that the money will be distributed soon to farmers.
The new agreement calls for a payment process similar to the original Pigford settlement, in which claimants can win compensation without going to court. The funding still requires Congressional approval, however.
In a conference call with reporters late Thursday, Sec. Vilsack said the settlement would close a "sordid chapter in USDA history."
"I'm going to focus all my time and resources on making that happen," Sec. Vilsack said. "The president is prepared to indicate that it's a priority not just for his administration but for the country."
President Obama and Sec. Vilsack inherited the case, which arises from a 1997 class-action civil-rights lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, filed by three African-American farmers alleging that the USDA had discriminated against them and other black farmers, by systematically denying them USDA loans and farm subsidies that were routinely available to white farmers. But many black farmers who had valid claims against USDA missed the original filing deadline for the suit, or were unaware of its existence. Almost as soon as the Pigford case was settled in 1999, there was a move to re-open it. There have been years of protest, much of it led by Dr. John W. Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA). There have been so many different court filings that a barn could be filled with the various court documents that have been created.
The settlement announcement comes after a week of protests, led by Boyd and the NBFA. From Feb. 6 onward, the NBFA held a daily rally in each of six different Southern states; all were well attended--the rally in Georgia, on Feb. 11, drew more than five hundred supporters (above: Boyd at the Georgia rally). On Monday, the final protest was held in front of USDA headquarters in Washington. Each rally was dramatic, with aged farmers and their families--children and grandchildren--turning out to decry the lack of settlement. Many of the farmers have already lost their family land, or were forced into bankruptcy due to the former discriminatory lending practices of USDA, and there is no changing that now.
From the White House, President Obama released the following statement about settling Pigford Two:
My Administration is dedicated to ensuring that federal agencies treat all our citizens fairly, and the settlement in the Pigford case reflects that commitment. I applaud Secretary Vilsack for his efforts to modernize operations at the USDA, as well as the work of the Justice Department in bringing these long-ignored claims of African American farmers to a rightful conclusion. I look forward to a swift resolution to this issue, so that the families affected can move on with their lives.
Senate Agriculture Chair Blanche Lincoln has pledged to try to get Congress to move fast on funding the new settlement.
Photo: Mike Haskey, Ledger Inquirer