Martin Luther King Jr's dream included equality for black farmers. But a year into the Obama Era, a longstanding USDA discrimination suit remains unsettled...
Black farmers in the US tend to be small and family farmers, who are now receiving much attention from the Obama administration, particularly with USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food project. But for much of USDA's history, black farmers were the victims of institutionalized, racially biased practices
, and denied the kind of support and financial benefits routinely given to their white counterparts. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called attention to the plight of black farmers, but even today, issues remain.
In 1999, an attempt was made to redress USDA's troubled past, with the Pigford Suit, which awarded financial compensation to 16,000 black farmers who were found to have been discriminated against. But an estimated 80,000 black farmers were locked out of the original suit, because the deadline for filing to join was swift, and many weren't even aware that they could file to join. For the last nine years, Dr. John Boyd, a Virginia farmer and president of the National Black Farmers Association
, has led the fight to re-open Pigford, and finally get it equitably settled. He's worked with the Congressional Black Caucus, a series of bipartisan groups of legislators, lawyers, and non-profit agriculture and social justice groups. Boyd himself received compensation in the original settlement, but he's been tireless in his attempts to get his fellow farmers compensated. (Boyd, above)
While a Senator and then as a candidate on the campaign trail, President Obama pledged to finally settle Pigford, but after he arrived in the White House, senior advisers asked Boyd and black farmers to wait
for Pigford to be re-opened, while other, more pressing issues were addressed. But Boyd and black farmers couldn't wait any longer; many of the farmers who qualified for the Pigford suit are now in their seventies and eighties, and many have already lost their farms. There are now Pigford grandchildren awaiting action from the Obama administration. On April 28, 2009, President Obama's 100th day in office, Boyd and the NBFA held an impassioned rally
in front of USDA to call attention to the case. The White House quickly responded
, and a $1.25 billion settlement has been included as part of the 2010 budget. But black farmers, to date, have received no compensation. (Above: Boyd, center, at the USDA rally with black farmers; his mule, Struggle, is in foreground)
For Martin Luther King, Jr Day, Boyd has written the following to remind the Obama administration that black farmers are still, as Sec. Vilsack has called the USDA, residents on "the last plantation."
On this day that we remember the life and impact of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we recall a letter Dr. King sent to newly-elected president, John F. Kennedy. This letter was published in "The Nation" on February 4, 1961. In this letter Dr. King outlines the many areas that President Kennedy’s administration could affect positive change. Among areas cited specifically by Dr. King are the practices of the United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice:
The Department of Agriculture—which doubtless considers civil-rights issues as remote from its purview—could fruitfully reappraise its present operations with a view to taking certain steps that require no new legislative powers. The department could be of tremendous assistance to Negro farmers who are now denied credit simply because of their desire to exercise their citizenship rights. To wipe out this kind of discrimination would be to transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of Negroes on the land. A department zealous to implement democratic ideals might become a source of security and help to struggling farmers rather than a symbol of hostility and discrimination on the federal level.
A Justice Department that is imbued with a will to create justice has vast potential. The employment of powerful court orders, enforced by sizable numbers of federal marshals, would restrain lawless elements now operating with inexcusable license. It should be remembered that in early American history it was the federal marshal who restored law in frontier communities when local authority broke down.
It is now 2010, some 49 years after Dr. King’s letter. Unfortunately, many of the same issues remain for black farmers. Discriminated black farmers still await compensation from the government. In May 2009, the President proposed $1.15 billion for the 2010 budget. In a statement, President Obama said the proposed settlement funds would "close this chapter" in the USDA's history of discrimination. He went on to say:
My hope is that the farmers and their families who were denied access to USDA loans and programs will be made whole and will have the chance to rebuild their lives and their businesses.
Sadly, that promise remains unfulfilled. Congress has thus far failed to fund the requested $1.15 billion to compensate discriminated black farmers. May this be the year that this portion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream gets fulfilled.