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After more than a decade of struggle

African-American farmers win compensation

Published Feb 25, 2010 9:37 PM

On Feb. 18, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the latest settlement to provide compensation and resources to African-American farmers. An organization that represents African-American farmers, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund — founded in 1967 — welcomed the announced settlement.

Demonstrations took place during February in support of the demands put forward by African-American farmers seeking an end to land loss and the racist policies of the USDA, which have driven millions of people from the rural areas of the South for decades. Rallies were held in Washington, D.C.; Little Rock, Ark.; Memphis, Tenn.; Jackson, Miss.; Montgomery, Ala.; Columbus, Ga.; Columbia, S.C.; and Richmond, Va.

The farmers were demanding a resolution to the 1999 legal settlement which was supposed to provide compensation for decades of systematic discrimination by the USDA. However, the federal bureaucracy placed enormous roadblocks to the farmers receiving settlement funds.

Only 15,000 African-American farmers were able to navigate the complicated paperwork to collect compensation reported to have averaged a mere $50,000 per family. Most of the farmers were excluded, and in 2008 the U.S. Congress acknowledged the problems and granted additional time for another 70,000 people to apply for compensation.

Despite this supposed commitment to speed up the processing of applications for compensation, Congress cut $1.5 billion in funding that President Barack Obama had included in the first budget of the current administration and specifically designated for Black farmers. Obama has included a similar amount in the budget for the next fiscal year that is now going before the Congress.

According to Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, “The primary issue now, I think, is that there’s not money appropriated to pay the successful claimants.” Despite the fact that the Democratic Party controls both houses of Congress, there is no real commitment to address the problems of African-American farmers.

In a demonstration outside the USDA on Feb. 15, John Boyd, the National Black Farmers Association president, presented legislators with 538 ears of corn and packets of forget-me-not seeds, demanding that each member of the House of Representatives and Senate include the $1.5 billion in the 2010 budget for compensation. “Our long journey to justice should now come to a successful close,” said Boyd.

Boyd continued by stating, “We have endured many hardships, waited many years and traveled many miles. Now it’s time for Congress to do its part and fund fairness for black farmers. Thousands of farmers who can’t be in Washington showed their support by traveling long distances through snow and rain to join our rallies. We’re here to represent them and get the job done.” (PRWEB, Feb. 15)

In a Feb. 4 press conference, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responded to a question related to the ongoing plight of African-American farmers. Gibbs said, “Clearly, it’s something important to him [Obama]. It’s been an issue that has been worked on by the federal government now in several different administrations and dating back many years. Obviously, ensuring that justice is done is important in this situation.” (PRWEB, Feb. 15)

Fund spokesperson Heather Gray said of the recent settlement: “After years of negotiations and questions, for Black farmers who have never been able to have their claims of discrimination against the United States Department of Agriculture settled, there is finally some hope. The Obama administration and attorneys representing Black farmers have reached a settlement in the second phase of the lawsuit originally filed by Black farmers against the USDA in 1999.” (The Federation/LAF, Feb. 18)

According to the Fund executive director, Ralph Paige: “The long-awaited settlement in this second phase of the Pigford lawsuit is a major step forward. The $1.25 billion settlement proposed by the Obama administration is a vast improvement over the $100 million offered by Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill. Now there is hope that the thousands of black farmers whose cases have been pending can receive awards and damages after decades of discrimination.”

A history of discrimination and land loss

The plight of African-American farmers is by no means a new phenomenon and the claims against the federal government did not originate in the lawsuit filed during the 1990s. This problem stems from the legacy of slavery, the failure of reconstruction and the ongoing discriminatory practices of the USDA and the banks.

Although the abolitionist movement fought for decades to end slavery, it would take a bloody 4-year Civil War to bring about the collapse of this institution rooted in the extreme exploitation and oppression of four million people of African descent. The question of what provisions would be made for the former slaves, as well as for so-called free Africans, was discussed during the war but was never formally settled.

In 1862 some Union army generals began to break up plantations in liberated areas of the South and provide settlements for small African farmers.

In 1865 the first Freedmen’s Bureau Act developed plans for 40-acre plots of land to be sold to former slaves at cheap rates. This land would have come from evacuated plantations and areas that were unsettled during this period.

Nonetheless, by late 1865, President Andrew Johnson halted these initiatives by the Union army to allocate small farm settlements for the former slaves. Another agreement that was adopted in 1866 also made proposals for land redistribution, but these actions lacked an effective enforcement mechanism and consequently went largely unimplemented.

With the lack of governmental commitment to land redistribution in the South, the acquisition of farms by African Americans took place on a largely individual basis. Many African Americans were able to acquire land as a result of the dire economic conditions prevailing in the South after the Civil War.

In a study issued by Bruce J. Reynolds in 2002 entitled “Black Farmers in America, 1865-2000: The Pursuit of Independent Farming and the Role of Cooperatives,” Reynolds says that “W.E.B. DuBois estimated 19th century progress in land ownership by black farmers: 3 million acres in 1875, 8 million in 1890, and 12 million in 1900. The Census of Agriculture shows a steady increase in the number of farm operators owning land in the South from 1880 to 1890 and again in 1900, but does not distinguish between white and nonwhite owners until 1900. Census figures show 1920 was the peak year in the number of nonwhite owners of farmland in the South. In terms of acreage owned, the census shows 1910 as the peak year for the South. More than 12.8 million acres were fully and partly owned, respectively, by 175,290 and 43,177 nonwhite farmers.”

Yet the rise of terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the abandonment of reconstruction by the federal government left African-American farmers and their families open to systematic campaigns by the racists that drove many people off their farms through force of arms and the implementation of state laws that favored the former slave-owning elites. This process would continue well into the 20th century, resulting in the loss of millions of acres of land acquired by African Americans in the South.

These efforts to drive independent African-American farmers off their land was coupled with the systematic denial of credit and the corporatization of agricultural land that took hold during latter years of the 20th century. More farmers began to look toward cooperative agriculture as a means to maintain their livelihoods and access to land.

However, as Reynolds points out: “The population of independent farmers is declining through farm consolidations and through contracting systems that diminish decision-making requirements of farmers. As this trend continues, the usefulness of cooperatives, as well as the capacity of farmers to organize them, will decline.”

By 1992, the U.S. Census of Agriculture reported that there were only 18,000 African-American farmers remaining and land ownership was down to 2.3 million acres. Since the early 1990s the conditions for African-American farmers have worsened with the burgeoning economic crisis that has disproportionately affected nationally oppressed groups in the U.S.

The plight of African-American farmers constitutes an integral part of the overall question of national oppression in the U.S. It is inextricably linked to the economic crisis and its impact on African Americans, resulting in millions of job losses and home foreclosures. Consequently, the fight for justice for African-American farmers must be raised alongside other demands, including a real jobs program to employ the tens of millions of workers who are bearing the brunt of the deepening economic crisis in the world capitalist system.

E-mail: panw@africamail.com