Black farmers demand justice

By on August 8, 2013

In 1997, Timothy Pickford, an African-American farmer, along with 400 other Black farmers, filed a federal complaint against then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman.

The Pickford v. Glickman lawsuit alleged racial discrimination in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s allocation of farm loans, disaster payments and other assistance. The farmers claimed that the agency failed to process racial discrimination complaints and that the mistreatment of their loan applications caused economic damage.

The case covered a 16-year period from 1981 through 1996, during which 125,000 African-Americans farmed at some time or another and applied for farm credit or program benefits.

The USDA had discriminated against Black farmers since the 1930s, when the farm programs began. During the 1960s, in retaliation for Civil Rights activism and then in the 1980s and early 1990s, agency staff denied loans and agricultural assistance to Black farmers in violation of governmental policies and regulations.

In 1999, the farmers won their landmark class-action lawsuit. To date, $1.1 billion has been paid out to 16,000 claimants in this historic civil rights settlement.

However, tens of thousands of Black farmers filed claims after the deadline. They were not initially awarded payments as they were considered “late filers.” A 2008 Farm Bill provided $100 million for additional claims, which was insufficient. In December 2010, Congress passed the Claims Resolution Act, which appropriated $1.15 billion more to compensate them through the “Pigford II” settlement. In late 2011, a federal court approved a second round of payments for the late-filing farmers, and stated that funds would be dispersed after review.

John Zippert, Director of Program Operations of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund issued a July 18 press release on the claims. He reported that attorneys for the Network of Black Farm Groups and Advocates stated that Black farmers in the Pigford II lawsuit should receive decision notices in August from judges who reviewed the claims.

Claimants will receive a letter informing them if there has been a favorable or unfavorable decision. Successful farmers will be given instructions on how to apply for their claims, while unsuccessful claimants will be informed of the reason their claim was denied. Decisions are final and there will be no appeals.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys said that determinations have been made on almost all of the 33,000 non-duplicate claims received, mostly from Southern farmers. Some claims are still being reviewed to check for duplicate or multiple claims on the same farmland. The claims of those seeking debt relief for USDA loans are also still under review to determine the amount of farm debt to be forgiven under the settlement.

Of the $1.25 billion Congress approved to pay the claims, each farmer will receive the full damage award of $62,500, minus $12,500 paid to the Internal Revenue Service to cover federal income tax liabilities. Therefore, each claimant should receive $50,000. Additionally, $91 million has been approved for attorney fees.

Relatives filing on behalf of deceased farmers as the “legal representative(s) of the estate” will have to go through the probate process. They will be eligible to apply for and receive the payment made out to the estate, and distribute the claim award to other heirs after the payment of expenses and taxes due on the estate.

According to the Network of Black Farm Groups and Advocates, judges approved about 55 percent of the claims reviewed in the Pigford II case, while 63 percent of the claims were successful in the original Pigford case, which was won in 1999.

It has been more than two-and-a-half years since President Barack Obama signed the second settlement into law. Claimants were told they would receive payments by the end of 2012.

“They need to go ahead and expedite these payments so that the farmers won’t have to continue to wait,” says John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, reports the Aug. 2 Shreveport Times. “Here it is planting season has come and gone and farmers still don’t have their money. …

“Enough of the excuses,” Boyd stressed. “We have jumped every hurdle there is to jump.”

It has been a long, arduous process for Black farmers since the filing of their initial lawsuits for compensation and redress for the painful legacy of USDA bias against them. Many of the initial claimants have died; many are elderly. Thousands have lost their farms due to racial discrimination.

For the Black farmers, justice is long past due.

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