When they reached a $1.25 billion settlement with the USDA last February, members of the Pigford v. Glickman class action reasonably assumed they’d soon receive promised recompense. Now, in late August, claimants are still waiting.
Congress, having missed several deadlines, has yet to fund the settlement despite farm-state legislators’ backing.
John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, spearheaded the settlement effort and has been pushing Congress and the White House to finalize the deal. Boyd spoke with Delta Farm Press in mid-August. Among his comments:
On where funding for the settlement stands…
“I was disappointed the (Obama) administration made a deal with Sen. (Blanche) Lincoln for $1.5 billion primarily in disaster payments or subsidy payments to large-scale corporate farmers. … I can promise you there won’t be many black farmers taking part in that relief effort.
“I’ve been after President Obama and the administration to offer the black farmers an administrative remedy to help get us out of this political gridlock. The same kind of offer should’ve been made to black farmers like it was to Sen. Lincoln when she took her measure out of the small business (bill). We were taken out of the small business (bill) too. But there wasn’t any type of deal offered to us. That’s pretty much a double standard and I’m hopeful that the president will meet with me in the coming weeks so we can discuss where we are in the process.
“You asked where we are? We’re stuck in the Senate! We’re stuck in political, gridlock politics. It’s mid-term election politics.”
That was my next question: if this wasn’t an election year do you think this would’ve already gone through?
“I think so. I do think we need the involvement of President Obama to reach out to leadership — Republican and Democrat — to see what can be done to move the bill.”
Do you think politicians are looking at the coming (class-action) cases (against the USDA) and the potential for having to fund them … and are frightened of what their constituents are going to say?
“I don’t know. I can tell you I haven’t spoken to a senator that doesn’t support (funding the settlement). That’s the bad part.
“I have knocked on every senator’s door — Republican and Democrat. And I haven’t spoken to a single (politician) or staff member who hasn’t … supported (the settlement).
“That’s a difficult pill to swallow when you’ve tried to get something done for 26 years and finally have people saying they want to help. Now, we’re caught up in some bigger political fight. Every bill is being filibustered.
“I’ve met Sen. (Harry) Reid, (Senate majority leader) twice. I’ve had several buttonhole meetings with (Kentucky) Sen. Mitch McConnell (Senate minority leader) in the hallways. They both said they support (the settlement)…
“We’re always tied up in some other, bigger fight.
“We need leadership to take a look at what’s going on with black farmers and how long we’ve been fighting this fight. We’ve got a judgment (in our favor) in federal court. We have a bill that’s law saying ‘black farmers should be able to have their cases heard based on merit.’ That’s the law and it was supposed to be enacted within two years. None of those things have been done.
“We’re still out here pushing and everyone has to be held accountable for not getting this done in time. Deadlines have been missed in the settlement agreement — three, so far. Where is the accountability?
“We have President Obama who says he’s supportive, Secretary of Agriculture (Vilsack), leaders in the Senate and, bottom line, we still don’t have our money. That’s bad politics and bad for the American people to see how this is playing out in the media.”
Staying course wise action?
I want to ask about the March 31 deadline that was missed. In the settlement there was a contingency that if the funding hadn’t been (secured) by that time, you could pull out of the agreement. I’m wondering if, in hindsight, you wish you’d pulled out or if staying the course was the wisest choice?
“I hope eventually everyone will live up to their commitments in the settlement agreement. If they don’t it’ll be more of how history has treated black farmers — 40 acres and a mule, share-cropping and slavery. These are bad things that happened in American history.
“We have a chance, right now, to take something that’s very wrong and turn it right. It could be played as a positive with everyone taking part — Republicans and Democrats. And this isn’t a (partisan) issue. It’s a right-and-wrong issue. It’s a known fact that black farmers were treated wrong. We have a chance to fix that.
“I made the decision (to stay in) the settlement agreement — I’ll go on the record with that. I made the decision to take the settlement offer.
“I have a lot on the table, here. That’s another reason I want to sit down and talk to President Obama about this.
“This is a very important issue right in the middle of race relations in this country. This is a perfect issue to talk about race and see what we can do, find our next step in this country to allow everyone to live together and understand each other’s culture. Until that happens we’ll continue to have issues that resurface with race.”
You’ve mentioned a desire to meet with the president several times. Has the White House been amenable to that?
“I’ve had one meeting with the staff — the full staff. But I want to meet with the president. This is an issue that should be at his level.
“The way it looks to us, this doesn’t have a high priority. But the (Obama) administration says it does have a very high priority. Well, if it does, I’d like to sit down with the president and find out his thinking on this issue. Let’s map out a course that’ll be victorious for the black farmers, for the administration, Congress and everyone involved.
“Right now, everyone is looking bad. This is bad, bad. It’s bad what’s happening in the Senate to the black farmers. I don’t care how you look at it, it’s bad when a bill comes to the Senate floor seven times and they still can’t find a way to (fund the settlement) even though everyone is in agreement that the farmers were treated badly and should receive justice. That’s bad.
“It doesn’t make our political system look good with other countries watching what’s transpiring with this issue.”
Census and class size
I’m sure you’ve seen the reports and claims … regarding the census and how the numbers (of black farmers) don’t line up with the class size. Have you heard those claims? How do they stack up?
“Number one, the complaints went back from 1981 to 1997. Now, because it’s taken so damned long, there are heirs involved in this. They’re going to count. And you have the actual black farmers (who) between 1981 and 1997 filed a lot of complaints.
“Many tens of thousands (of complaints) were found at the USDA in boxes that had never been processed. That’s why the definition of the class action went from 1981 to 1997.
“I wanted to go back to 1960 when we saw the biggest drop of land loss for blacks. But that didn’t work.
“They (started claims in) 1981 … because that was the year the civil rights office was closed during the Reagan administration. It didn’t reopen until the Clinton administration (provided) money to reopen it and they began to look at all the complaints black farmers had been sending to the USDA that were stacked up in boxes…
“Let’s face the facts, here: the USDA was the last federal arm to integrate. They filed lawsuits to keep black people from working there. That’s the history of the USDA — not something to be proud of.
“But I do think we have a chance to make the USDA a better place by settling this case and paying those farmers who were discriminated against some type of restitution. And that’s what this is about.”
I spoke with folks who were members of the original class (about) the lawyers who went around trying to pick up clients. Was that atmosphere too carnival-like and did it contribute to delegitimize the legitimate claims that existed?
“There were mistakes made in the first settlement. That’s why I’m doing everything I can not to make those mistakes again.
“One was that discovery was waived. I think that was a mistake.
“But the USDA …. never sent out a class notification to all the thousands of (farmers who filed discrimination complaints). So, again, the government was not the black farmers’ friend.
“That’s why so many farmers came in after the (first) filing deadline. They really didn’t know about it. You’re talking about the deep South. Recently, I was down in a farmer’s house who didn’t have running water. I’m trying to help him get running water in his house in 2010!
“So, when I hear about the economy and helping depressed areas, this settlement will help the most depressed areas in the South where the black farmers live. Many have never left the county they live in. And they’ll spend (settlement) resources in the counties where they live.
“The settlement is a win/win for everyone involved. Prolonging it and not finalizing it by the Senate not giving the final nod makes everyone involved look bad. They’ve got everybody involved looking bad, including the leadership.”
The reaction since the (missed) deadline on March 31? Are claimants still assuming that money is (headed to) them?
“Many of the farmers are involved in conference calls. We have conference calls with farmers that have been leaders in their states. They merely want to know why this can’t be done. … They see it as the Senate not wanting to help black farmers. Period.
“It’s hard to explain that it’s part of a larger political gridlock.”
When the settlement was announced in February, I listened to you and the folks at the Department of Justice and USDA speak. There was a marked contrast between your tone — and I don’t want to say you sounded defeated, but skeptical in the extreme — and their tone, (which was) almost jubilant.
“Now, you can see why.
“I’ve been fighting this fight for 26 years. I’ve seen people on the turnip truck and people fall off. This has been a long haul.
“Every time I’ve been able to get a political victory, all the players were never in sync or in agreement. There was always somebody that didn’t agree.
“The piece in the farm bill, President Bush wasn’t really for. But it passed in the (last) farm bill anyway.”
You’re talking about the $100 million?
“Right. That was the piece that allowed the (black farmers) case to move forward to be heard based on its merits. … Now, I’m trying to secure the funding to get to the farmers…
“I’m concerned that if we don’t get something on record in September, we’ll be caught up in mid-term elections. I’ve been around politics long enough to know that isn’t a good time to be pushing a measure in Congress.
“That’s the biggest reason I want to meet with the president. If this doesn’t get done in September, what is the administration going to do to live up to its commitment to provide justice to the black farmers? That’s where I am because waiting until after November is not an option for the black farmers.”