Signing ceremony for historic $4.6 billion bill for black farmer & Native American settlements: "It’s about restoring a sense of trust between the American people and the government," President says; black farmer leader Boyd calls it a "bittersweet victory"
Hailing the moment as a "wonderful occasion" that "after years of delay provides a small measure of justice," President Obama late on Wednesday signed the Claims Resolution Act of 2010, $4.6 billion legislation that funds settlements for longstanding suits against the federal government brought by black farmers and Native Americans. (Above: The President during the ceremony, surrounded by lawmakers and Cabinet Secretaries)
"This isn’t simply a matter of making amends. It’s about reaffirming our values on which this nation was founded -– principles of fairness and equality and opportunity," President Obama said.
It was passed by the lame duck Congress earlier this month, after years of work by what the President called "the activists, the tribal leaders, and the outstanding members of Congress."
About 130 people were gathered in the South Auditorium of the Old Eisenhower Executive Office Building for the signing ceremony, including Members of Congress, key leaders and advocates from the African American and Native American communities, congressional staff, Cabinet Secretaries Tom Vilsack and Ken Salazar, and Attorney General Eric Holder. Elaine Cobell, the Native American whom the suit is named after, and Dr. John W. Boyd, Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, were both in the audience, as were members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The full list of attendees is here.
The Claims Settlement Act provides $1.15 billion for the settlement of Pigford II, a longstanding racial bias suit first brought by black farmers against USDA in 1999, and $3.4 billion for the Cobell settlement for American Indian plaintiffs who claimed during a 14-year-long suit that Interior officials mismanaged royalties from leases of tribal land used to harvest oil, minerals and timber. The President's remarks (transcript is here):
"Each of us deserves the chance to pursue our own version of happiness. It’s what led us to become a nation. It’s at the heart of who we are as a people," President Obama said. "And our history is defined by the struggle to fulfill this ideal."
"I think all of us understand that we haven’t always lived up to those ideals," he added. "When we’ve fallen short, it’s been up to ordinary citizens to stand up to inequality and unfairness wherever they find it. That’s how we’ve made progress."
Lauding the Act as the work of a bipartisan group of lawmakers, the President noted that he had introduced legislation for the black farmers suit when he was a Senator.
"It’s about restoring a sense of trust between the American people and the government that plays such an important role in their lives," President Obama said of the bill. "As long as I have the privilege of serving as your President I will continue to do everything I can to restore that trust. And that’s why I am so extraordinarily proud to sign this bill today."
In a separate statement released by the White House about the Claims Settlement Act, the President promised further action to address other pending discrimination suits. (At left: The President shakes hands with Holder after the ceremony)
"My Administration will continue our efforts to resolve claims of past discrimination made by women and Hispanic farmers and others in a fair and timely manner," President Obama said.
The Act also provides a one-year extension of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grants, a six-month extension of the supplemental TANF grant program for states with high population growth or historically below-average welfare grants, and provisions to improve the integrity of the unemployment compensation program.
What the bill does for Cobell and Pigford II
Under the settlement, eligible black farmers will receive about $50,000 in compensation. Black farmer claimants must have farmed or attempted to farm between 1981 and 1986, have filed a discrimination complaint before July 1, 1987, and have filed a claim after the deadline in the original settlement, according to Boyd. (Above: The Act awaiting the President's signature)
For the Cobell settlement, plaintiffs will receive $1.4 billion directly, while the government will use $2 billion to repurchase Indian lands broken up under the Dawes Act in the late 19th and early 20th century. Another $60 million will fund scholarships for American Indian students.
"It helps put more land in the hands of tribes to manage for their members," President Obama said. "And it also includes money to settle lawsuits over water rights, giving seven tribes in Arizona, Montana and New Mexico permanent access to secure water supplies year-round."
Boyd on the record...
Boyd, who over the last 26 years has become the public face of the Pigford settlement, and led a series of very public protests since the President took office, which included thousands of black farmers fro across the US, called the signing ceremony "bittersweet." Boyd received a settlement under the original Pigford suit, but has been working tirelessly to ensure that black farmers who were locked out of that suit were included in today's settlement. (Above: Boyd during a protest outside USDA headquarters earlier this year)
"Today is historic for black farmers," Boyd told Obama Foodorama.
But he but added that it has not been without a high price.
"Many black farmers have died at the plow waiting for today," Boyd said.
The black farmers settlement has been taken up by the children and grandchildren whose elders were discriminated against under USDA policies, which prevented them from receiving the same USDA loans and other assistance provided by the agency.
"It's a bittersweet victory," Boyd said.
*Photo at top by Chuck Kennedy/White House; White House video