A bill approving a $1.25 billion discrimination settlement for black farmers was passed by the House earlier this week and is headed for President Barack Obama's desk to be signed.
The settlement is the culmination of almost two decades of legal and political wrangling, not to mention heartbreak and despair for black farmers in the Deep South.
But for John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, the settlement is only the beginning. Hours after the settlement was passed, he began receiving calls from black farmers wanting to know their next steps and how the process will work.
"I've been swamped by calls and I'm still explaining to the farmers that it is a bit of an administrative process. But the farmers are not going to have to do it by themselves," Boyd said.
Now begins a process of reaching out to black farmers, many of whom are poorly educated in an effort to teach them about the settlement. The goal is to get as many black farmers as possible to have their cases heard by an arbitrator to avoid a repeat of what happened during the first settlement of this case when many found out about it too late or did not file in time.
"The president could sign the bill as early as next week so we are going to have to work with these farmers because with these cases there is a percentage of farmers not up on educational skills. We want them to understand and be able to explain what happened to them," Boyd said.
About 30,000 farmers have filed claims. Boyd said he wants to make sure everyone has their case heard by an independent arbitrator.
"My goal is to not leave anyone out. Now is the time for the farmers to reach out and say: 'This is what happened to me and I can tell my story," Boyd said.
For President Obama, this is a kept campaign promise that he can use to show African Americans how he has been working on their behalf.
"President Obama can say this was resolved on his watch. He made good on a campaign process. It behooves the administration to look at this as something that directly affects African Americans in the poorest counties in this country. Down in places like Mississippi these are poor communities and they need this money to help get their lives together."
The fight to get the bill passed was long and difficult but was worth it. Boyd said comments by Rep. Michelle Bachman who said the settlement was "rife with fraud" and Rep. Steve King from Iowa who called the settlement "slavery reparations," shows the attitude that disenfranchised black farmers were facing.
There are ample anti-fraud provisions in the settlement, including an independent arbitrator to review cases and the final approval that is needed from the court.
"It sounded like some Rush Limbaugh stuff on the house floor. This case had nothing to do with reparations, it was about discrimination," said Boyd. "He gave me all the credibility and validity we need to move forward with this process. He proved my case that racism is still alive in America. We are talking about using this as a stepping stone to fight racism."
Part of that is the fight to rid the U.S. Department of Agriculture of the racism that officials there still acknowledge is in existence.
In an interview, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he is expecting recommendations from an outside consulting firm later this month about how to prevent this type of discrimination going forward.
An independent consultant hired by the USDA has identified more than 3,000 discrimination cases that warrant further examination. Those claims, originally totaling more than 14,000, lay unexamined during the Bush Administration. Many of those claims are now beyond the statute of limitations. Vilsack said he expects at least 600 of the remaining cases to lead to actual claims.
Farm service agency locations have received civil rights training and the agency has doubled compliance reviews. The goal is nothing short of a complete "cultural transformation," Vilsack said.
"My focus has been making sure that we don't get the government and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the same situation that it has been for the last 20 or 30 years and that is by taking a look at our current practices and making sure we are not making the same mistakes again, either intentionally and unintentionally," said Vilsack.
Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli said the black farmers settlement bill, which also settled other long standing suits with Native Americans over management of their land trusts and water rights are transformative.
"They don't just resolve litigation but they put large classes of our citizens in a new relationship with the agencies that play a crticially important role in their lives," said Perrelli.
Boyd said there's still work to be done.
On a local level, the committees that decide how federal aid is distributed and which loans are approved are still dominated by whites. Black farmers have been pushed to advisory panels that do not have a vote, Boyd said.
"You can't have an agency that represents only white males and that is what has happened with the USDA," Boyd said.
The amount of money that black, Latino, Native American and women farmers receive in the same subsidies and aid given to white farmers is still severely lagging.
"On the farm, when a calf gets out, we have to take a piece of wire and mend the fence. Settling this case starts that process but there is stil time needed for healing and for the trust factor to develop between black farmes and the USDA," Boyd said. "We've got a lot of work to do and I'm hopeful we can get a lot of this change done on the watch of President Obama."