The Black Commentator: An independent weekly internet magazine dedicated to the movement for economic justice, social justice and peace - Providing commentary, analysis and investigations on issues affecting African Americans and the African world.
Dec 9, 2010 - Issue 405

Senate Approves Settlement
for Black Farmers
Solidarity America
By John Funiciello
B Columnist



In what has been described as the largest civil rights settlement in American history, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved a bill on Nov. 19 and the House approved the bill on Dec. 1 that will provide $1.15 billion in compensation to black farmers and landowners who had suffered discrimination for the past three decades.

That was the second part of a settlement aimed to compensate black farmers who had suffered structural discrimination in farm loans and other services of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, through their county committees. In Pigford v. Glickman (North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford and Dan Glickman, secretary of agriculture in the Clinton Administration), the farmers in the class action suit were entitled to up to $50,000 each, but tens of thousands were left out of the claim because of missed filing deadlines and other problems.

The second, Nov. 19, settlement - Pigford II - provided for additional claims, but many believe that there were others who lost their farms or land and were not included and will never be compensated.

Included in the bill for Pigford II was more than $3 billion to settle claims by American Indians against the U.S. Interior Department for its “mismanagement” of Indian trust funds. Whether it was just mismanagement, corruption, or plain theft is not known. Much of that money just disappeared and there was no way to account for it.

The Pigford II legislation was not without its critics. One of the more outspoken was Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who claimed that the settlement amounted to slavery “reparations” for black farmers and landowners. His position was to limit the settlement to $100 million. Also, he charged that 75 percent of the claims were fraudulent - he made the claim without any supporting evidence.

The USDA, however, said that of the thousands of claims, only three were referred to the FBI for investigation. It appears that King made some assumptions, and then made his unsubstantiated charges.

Clearly, the settlement has brought the likes of King out of the woodwork (the House vote was 256-152 and most opponents were Republicans. The action of Congress is an indication that most legislators want to see an end to the very internationally embarrassing discrimination and racism issue.

Although many black farmers and landowners were left out of both settlements for a variety of reasons, the settlement is a victory for those who suffered discrimination throughout their lives. It physically sickened farmers who had to worry constantly about whether their loans for seed, fertilizer, and equipment would come through on time for another season’s crops. The stress likely killed many of them.

If one hasn’t experienced this kind of constant abuse in front of one’s family, friends, and community, it would be impossible to understand the relief that the settlement brings. It brings a sense of justice because it does bring a measure of equity to the plaintiffs.

The settlement is about dignity and an official admission that wrong was done and harm came to so many black farmers and landowners. Many of the farmers who were discriminated against did not live to see the day that the government would admit unjust and illegal behavior over decades and provide small compensation for it.

John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, said at the time of the Senate vote that he has been working on this issue and fighting for black farm families for 26 years. Gary Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, has been carrying on the same fight for a similar period.

Grant’s father, Matthew, and his mother, Florenza, never lived to see the victory in the congressional votes. A few decades ago, after he had started his fight to save his farm in Tillery, N.C., he said, one of the local county committee representatives said to him, “Matthew, I don’t care who you bring in here, we’re going to foreclose you.” They wanted him off his 300-plus-acre farm.

The Grant family carried on the fight of Matthew and Florenza. Today, they continue the struggle to keep the farm, believing, as Gary Grant said a number of years ago, “A landless people is a powerless people.” For him, as for so many others, it was about more than just raising a crop and getting a few dollars in the marketplace.

Saving the farms and farmland was about creating community, one in which people take care of each other and see to each other’s needs on a personal basis. Ultimately, that has to do with having the substance to do that and that means land. In the rural areas, wealth is not necessarily measured in dollars. There, the land is wealth, and everything comes from the land.

So, if the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (overwhelmingly) white county committees had been further allowed to do their part in wresting the land from black farmers, there would be a lot less black-owned land across the South and in America, in general. As it is, there is but a mere fraction of black-owned farmland and farms in 2010, compared with the acreage and number of black-owned farms in 1920.

Those struggling farmers paid the price of Jim Crow - America’s apartheid - more than most others. The depth of their love of their land and their way of life and the lives of their fellow farmers and friends resulted in the absolute refusal to be driven from the land and it gave them the will to fight such a long and hard battle to survive and prevail.

The opponents of the settlement, as little as it was for the massive damages that had been done to so many over decades, are not going to go away. Rep. King was joined in his opposition to the settlement by Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., and they make quite a pair. She is a leader of the Tea Party movement in the GOP and has spoken rather freely about revolution and insurrection. In the past, apparently after realizing that her calls were rather intemperate, she has pulled back a bit and said that she merely meant rebellion against her party or against congressional actions.

But, make no mistake, Bachmann and King are just a few who would make black farmers and their families wait another 30 years for justice, if it ever came. King said recently that he would support reinstitution of an internal security committee, along the lines of the House Un-American Activities Committee of the 1950s. It is the committee that Senator Joe McCarthy rode to notoriety and to a Senate censure, which he did not survive by too many years. The wild claims opponents made about the Pigford and Indian compensation legislation include that it was “an Obama-inspired” move to redistribute wealth. Never mind that Obama was a boy when this struggle for justice began.

That’s another great concern of Rep. King that he has said needs to be addressed: the Marxian move toward equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth. There are lots of people in the country who agree, regardless of the facts to the contrary or just simple justice. They claim that these offenses against black farmers happened in the past and, therefore, they should be forgotten. Apparently, they want America to be what it was “back then,” when there were few protections for working people and Indians and African-American farmers. They would go back further, to a time when humans could be owned.

Perhaps, that’s what King, Bachmann, and their cohort mean when they say they want to “take back America.” Editorial Board member Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union. Click here to contact Mr. Bloice.