National Public Radio (NPR)
SHOW: All Things Considered 9:00 PM EST
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
Black Farmers Follow Up on USDA Grievances
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Hundreds of black farmers are expected in Washington, D.C., tomorrow morning to protest years of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Black farmers filed a lawsuit in 1997 and two years later a court ordered the government to pay black farmers for its discriminatory practices, but many farmers say they were left out of that process and now they're asking Congress for help.
NPR's Kathy Lohr has the story.
KATHY LOHR reporting:
When black farmers first picketed the Department of Agriculture in 1996, about 50 showed up with a pair of mules and a wagon to protest racial discrimination in denying them loans, credit and in taking away their land. Thousands had sent in complaints, but they found the Civil Rights Office at the USDA had been closed for years and boxes of their letters remained unopened. In 1999, a judge approved a federal lawsuit and a system of payments for farmers who faced discrimination.
Mr. JOHN BOYD (National Black Farmers Association): This thing has been festering on since 1997.
LOHR: President of the National Black Farmers Association John Boyd says thousands never received their part of the settlement, worth $2.5 billion.
Mr. BOYD: Black farmers have become frustrated. They're frustrated with the system. They're frustrated with the Department of Justice and all of these stories that they continue to hear about why their payments have not been released and their cases have not been processed.
LOHR: Boyd, a fourth generation farmer from Virginia, says black farmers didn't receive proper notice, so many didn't sign up by the deadline. The cases of some 70,000 who filed late have never been heard. Although the court ruled they had plenty of notice, Boyd says the newspaper and TV campaign didn't target the right audience.
Mr. BOYD: Where there was advertisement on CNN and TV Guide, things that black farmers are not watching. A lot of the black farmers around the country don't even have cable. They're not watching those programs where the advertisement were running. So a lot of the people didn't know that the class action lawsuit was out here so that they could be a part of it.
LOHR: The Government Accountability Office just issued a report on the settlement. It notes that by last January, 22,000 claims were reviewed, but only about 64 percent were approved. The rest were denied. A court monitor ordered a reexamination of about 2,000 of the claims that were initially denied, and most of those then got included in the settlement. Bob Robinson compiled the report.
Mr. ROBERT ROBINSON (Government Accountability Office): It'd be impossible to know how many people did not file a claim. All we could do was, of those that did file a claim, you know, what happened to those claims and that's what our report sort of lays out there in fairly specific terms.
LOHR: The report also looked at the possibility of an ombudsman at the USDA to address civil rights issues. The farmers are using that as fuel for their campaign. They're seeking a moratorium on farm foreclosures and asking Congress to do what the court wouldn't, to reopen tens of thousands of cases that were thrown out or never heard at all.
Alabama Congressman Artur Davis is scheduled to attend the rally at the USDA. He introduced a bill last year that would reopen the lawsuit and help farmers who face foreclosure.
Representative ARTUR DAVIS (Democrat, Alabama): It's unusual for Congress to in effect reopen a statute of limitations. It's unusual for Congress to revisit a settlement made by a government agency. But I would contend that these are extraordinary circumstances. Nine out of ten claims filed after the settlement have been denied. I cannot imagine that the federal government would have settled a case if 90 percent of the claims had no merit.
LOHR: This year, as black farmers head back to Washington, they carry the support of a number of groups, including the AFL-CIO, the Democratic National Committee and the NAACP. But they say if they don't fix the problems with the lawsuit, the settlement remains just another broken promise by the federal government.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News.
Audio file is here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5362406