There's been an outpouring of public grief following the death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy late Tuesday night, and he'll be remembered as a tireless champion of civil rights and social justice.
Senator Kennedy was a shining light in one of the ugliest civil rights battles in American agricultural history--which is ongoing even as this is being written. Over the last decade, Senator Kennedy became one of the most vocal Senators on the Hill in search of civil and social justice for America's black farmers, at a time when many people didn't even realize how large a population of black farmers still exists in this country. But Senator Kennedy recognized their vital importance to rural communities, and to the Ag economy, and he also recognized the importance of preserving a historic way of life that was rapidly vanishing. Perhaps most importantly, he recognized the dire need for making corrections in discriminatory policies that are still left over, somewhat incredibly, from the time of the creation of the USDA during President Lincoln's administration.
Senator Kennedy was one of the first legislators to attempt to redress the decades of racially biased lending and credit practices and a pandemic of discriminatory USDA policies against black farmers and other non-white farmers. For decades, it was unwritten USDA policy to not give black and other minority farmers--and women farmers--the same kind of educational, credit, and financial resources (through subsidies) that were offered to white farmers. The long and now legendary USDA lawsuit, Pigford Vs. Glickman, which became a huge class action lawsuit that dragged on for years, attempted to redress these inequities, with financial payments to farmers who could prove they had been denied equal access to USDA resources; the suit was settled in 1999. But almost immediately, it was deemed inadequate. An estimated 80,000 black farmers had been locked out of Pigford, because they were unaware that the suit even existed. And there was an equivalent problem, that's a singular example of the kinds of practices state and local USDA officials had been engaged in: Black farmers were asked to prove the USDA had not helped them, or loaned them money based on their race--but USDA officials were doing things like hrowing out their loan applications--based on race. There was no paper trail for thousands of farmers, and they weren't allowed to join Pigford. But during the long battle to re-open Pigford, Senator Kennedy was a bastion of support for Virginia farmer John Boyd, President of the National Black Farmers Association, who has led the campaign to get Pigford re-addressed.
"Senator Ted Kennedy was a champion of the nation's black farmers, and his Senate office was always open to me," Boyd said on Wednesday. "Senator Kennedy always listened to our issues, and moved with swift action. Senator Kennedy's work and dream for a better America will live on in all of us who were affected and inspired by him."
Sen. Kennedy was one of the co-sponsors of a bipartisan 2007 Bill that would have finally settled the Pigford claims--and the Bill came into being thanks to Boyd. The Pigford case is a complicated story, but represents how enduring discrimination is, and how long the fight has been--even in this decade--and how tireless Senator Kennedy was. Boyd was among the farmers who actually did receive compensation from the 1999 Pigford settlement, but when he realized how many other black farmers had been locked out--and were going bankrupt and losing their lands, and being denied the kind of support the USDA routinely gives white farmers--he swung into action, and has become a regular presence on the Hill, with literally thousands of meetings with Senators and members of Congress--always with the help of Senator Kennedy. And Boyd didn't stop at the Hill; he's well connected in Southern black communities, and he joined the Obama campaign very early, under promises that then-candidate Obama would work rapidly to re-open Pigford if elected--if Boyd would help get out the Southern black vote, which was considered a critical segment of the voting population--but not a slam dunk for Senator Obama. Boyd left his Virginia farm and spent weeks riding around the Deep South, in a van, campaigning with Michelle Obama--just a short while after Sen. Kennedy introduced the 2007 legislation, which, sadly, never became law. (Photo: President Obama with John Boyd, pre-election)
After President Obama entered office, Boyd was asked by senior White House Advisers to wait for two years for the Administration to take up Pigford again, because it was deemed a low priority in light of all the other critical issues President Obama had inherited. Boyd was appalled, as he told Ob Fo in this interview, because many of the black farmers locked out of Pigford are now in their seventies and eighties--and they would die before they saw the issue settled. Many had already lost their farms, or were in bankruptcy--or their children (or grandchildren!) were suffering the same fate. Boyd held an emotional rally in front of USDA headquarters on the National Mall on President Obama's 100th day in office (above), and within a few days, after meetings with Senior White House officials, including Valerie Jarrett, the Obama Administration announced that it would work rapidly to try to resolve the issue financially, as well as correct the decades of USDA discriminatory practices. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made the same pledge, and has since amped up USDA's civil rights office, so USDA will at last stop being known as "the last plantation." (Above: The 100th day rally in front of USDA; Boyd is at the microphone)
Today, the proposed financial compensation for the black farmers is sitting as a line item of $1.25 billion dollars in the 2010 budget--although Boyd estimates that $2.7-$4 billion is a far more realistic amount for compensation--and it could well be voted out of the budget during Hill negotiations. Senator Kennedy would no doubt have been a critical force in the upcoming negotiations to redress the decades of institutionalized racism, and it's just one more area where his death will be felt deeply; his influence in the Senate, and in the lives of all Americans, as we all know, was wide and brilliant and pathbreaking. Boyd will continue working on Pigford, no matter what, but black farmers--all farmers--have lost a critical voice for justice, as has the country. Still, perhaps as one of the many hoped-for legislative tributes to Sen. Kennedy, the decades of racial discrimination against black farmers will at last be corrected...and Pigford will be settled once and for all.
*A letter from Senator Kennedy to John Boyd is here [PDF]; Pigford vs. Glickman has now turned into Pigford vs. Vilsack; go to the Pigford Monitor for updates.