When John Boyd steps before a crowd and talks about the indignities and discrimination that black farmers have had to endure from the federal government, he's not just speaking from a script. Boyd, who raises beef cattle, corn, wheat and soybeans in Mecklenburg County, Va., is speaking from real-life experience.
In 1986, Boyd went to his local U.S. Department of Agriculture office to apply for a $12,000 operating loan.
"The white supervisor said he wasn't going to give me any of his money," said Boyd. "He works for the federal government, but it was his money."
And matters only got worse from there. Boyd said the man was chewing tobacco and picked up a spit cup. Instead of spitting into the cup, Boyd believes the man purposely spit on his shirt.
"That was routine and systematic," said Boyd, who almost came to blows with the man.
Eventually, in an effort to save his own farm from foreclosure, Boyd joined other black farmers looking to sue the government for the discrimination they faced daily. The result was the Pigford v. Glickman case in which 16,000 black farmers won a $980 million settlement.
However, many black farmers were not properly notified of the suit or given enough time to join. As a result, then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama
helped pass a bill to reopen the case and a $1.25 billion settlement
was agreed upon. But since 2007, the Senate has failed to vote to fund the settlement even though it has twice passed the House.
These days, Boyd, who is president of the National Black Farmers Association, is on a mission to get black farmers a payment that will likely only average out to $50,000 per farmer, not nearly enough to compensate them for their losses, he says. Meanwhile, the number of black farmers is dwindling, with estimates of between 30,000 and 40,000.
Boyd recently arrived in New York City
with his work mule named Struggle as part of a tour across the country
and sat down with AOL BlackVoices'
Jeff Mays for a Q&A.
BlackVoices: Why is it important for black farmers to receive this settlement?
There are farmers dying with no resources who have been shut out of these government programs, and it was done by design. They cut off the credit, and there was no choice for many but to close up shop. We are losing this land for virtually no money. This was a legalized way to get land from black people and put it back into the hands of white people for pennies on the dollar using foreclosure. We are lucky to still have any black farmers the way we were treated by the government. When you lose your farm, you don't just lose a job, you lose a way of life. You lose your family name and your standing in the community. This settlement would put money in the poorest counties in the country where these black people live. They are going to spend this money in the community. Statistically, many black farmers never leave their state they are born there and die there.
I'm also battling what I call "old black pride." These farmers know they are in trouble. They know they are in trouble months ahead of time, but they don't tell anyone because they are embarrassed. It's our dirty laundry and we keep it to ourselves. That's a problem within our own culture. If you receive a foreclosure notice two months out, give me that notice two months out and give me time to help keep you on the farm. Don't call and tell me the sale is next week. That's not enough time.
For 26 years, almost every adult day of my life, I've been working on this issue. I ain't going home without the money to help these farmers. I'm willing to stand out here in New York City and say I need this to happen. I'm going to use every legal opportunity.
BV: President Obama introduced the bill to fund this second phase of the settlement when he was still a senator. Why are you now focusing on the president to help get the settlement funded?
He is the world leader. We know he is busy, and we support him, but I need help. I clearly need help in the Senate, and I think he can push the legislators there. We need the president to go a step further, and the way I am asking for him to do that is to call for a cloture vote before the midterm elections. This case is about discrimination, plain and simple. I can't believe this case has not been settled after all these years. Obama should tell Congress to get this done. We'd like to see him use the bully pulpit a little more. It's discouraging to some people that even with a black president, we still have these problems. We want to keep him focused on the issue. I would like to sit down with him and see where he thinks he can be a little more helpful in getting this done. This thing has failed seven times, and I think we need the involvement of the president. You know I'm blowing the phone up. I want to hear from the president what he thinks the next steps are.
This case is bigger than President Obama. These problems existed when he came into office. He didn't make these problems. This settlement has been going on for decades. Do I think he's trying to fix it? Yes. Do I think he is distracted with bigger issues? Yes. Am I out here trying to remind him that I need a final nail in the coffin? Yes. Me asking for help does not mean I don't support my president. I bet if I sit down and speak with the president, I bet he's going to tell me I did a good job getting his attention.
BV: You've suggested that one of the reasons the bill is being held up is because of the upcoming midterm elections. Some senators want to be seen as fiscally conservative and don't want to have this bill attached to their records. Why can't the bill wait until after the midterm elections when there is less political pressure?
I can't wait until after the elections because the politics are too risky. This is the best time. A change in leadership will take a while longer. We want the leadership of both parties to put aside politics and do the right thing for the black farmers now. I'm preaching eulogies, and I'm not a preacher. You have to tell families that daddy didn't have to die without the benefit of this money. They have voted on it seven times and it has failed seven times. It's been attached to different spending bills five times. I want a free-standing bill with 60 votes so I can call out those persons who say they are for us but won't vote for us. They are hiding behind the big spending bill.
There is a distrust among black farmers right now. The history of how the federal government has treated black farmers and the fact that they haven't settled the case leaves a bad taste in the farmers' mouths. When the federal government comes out and says we have new programs to show you, but they haven't paid the settlement, it's like asking them to trust someone when they haven't paid the money they owe but they want to borrow some more money.
BV: Why should African Americans be concerned about this issue?
Every black person in this country is no more than three generations from the farm. That's why we were brought to this country in the first place. We all need food. With the health conditions of our people, we should be more concerned about eating healthier food and supporting black farmers and the fact they produce healthier food, because we can't afford the chemicals to go into the crop. We've been farming organic way before it became popular. When we lose black farmers, we lose part of our history. We need African Americans, and all Americans, to call your U.S. senator and tell them to pass the black farmer bill.
BV: What does the future hold for black farming in this country?
I want to focus on getting more young people involved in farmer and agribusiness
. There are opportunities we need to be looking at. We need young people to look at urban farming and see that there is a way they can produce healthy food. We have a rich heritage. Let's not run away from farming but embrace it and see what we can do.
We can do that by partnering with black megachurches. We shouldn't have a black megachurch and not have a farmers' market outside where members can grab fresh fruits and vegetables after fellowship. That's something we can do without the federal government to help black farmers. It's a win-win because black people get healthier food, and we help black farmers to stay on the farm and keep our farms.