As the nation strives to put people back to work, now is the time to honor our promise to black farmers. President Obama asked Congress in May for $1.15 billion for black farmers to compensate them for discrimination by the Department of Agriculture, but Congress has failed to act. This month, the National Black Farmers Association will hold rallies throughout the South to urge immediate government action on behalf of discriminated farmers.
For decades, discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture left many black farmers strapped, broken or out of business. From 1920 to 1992, the number of black farmers in this country plummeted a staggering 98 percent.
During this decline, USDA hostility to black farmers was so bad that it earned the nickname, "The Last Plantation." For decades black farmers did not receive access to the same loans and programs that white farmers did, hastening their ruin. In 1984 and 1985, for example, the USDA lent $1.3 billion to farmers to buy land. Of the almost 16,000 farmers who received those funds, only 209 were black.
In 1999 the Justice Department settled one of the largest civil rights cases in US history, allowing compensation for black farmers for discrimination by the USDA. Estimates at the time were that this would result in $2.25 billion for discriminated black farmers.
But nothing seems to come easily for black farmers. Sadly, many who may have been eligible for compensation did not find out about the settlement in time to file a timely claim, and only a little over $1 billion has been paid to black farmers. Congress addressed this by passing a law in 2008 (sponsored in the Senate by Barack Obama) allowing black farmers who filed late to have a chance to prove their eligibility for damages.
On May 6, 2009 President Obama announced that his 2010 budget included $1.15 billion to completely compensate black farmers and "to close this chapter" on the USDA's history of discrimination. The President said that he hoped that "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 businesses."
Sadly, Congress has failed to act on the President's request, and time is running out. We now hear talk in Washington about "spending freezes." In other words, history may repeat itself for black farmers, with good intentions turning into empty promises, and black farmers abandoned -- not unlike the empty post -- Civil War promise of 40 acres and a mule.
The NBFA's rallies are a clarion call for Congress to do the right thing and compensate discriminated black farmers for the government's wrongs against them. It certainly has found the will to fund far less worthy and much more expensive causes. Black farmers aren't asking for a bail out or a hand out, just the same opportunity to work hard and thrive their white counterparts have had.
Starting on February 6, our rallies will ask Congress to give them the chance to build their businesses, to hand down a hard-earned legacy to their families, and to put resources back into rural America. In this case, there is no better stimulus than justice.
John W. Boyd Jr. is the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association.