Tuesday, February 23, 2010

African-American Farmers Continue Struggle for Economic Justice

African-American Farmers Continue Struggle For Economic Justice

New settlement announced by Department of Agriculture amid national demonstrations

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

A series of demonstrations took place during February in support of the demands put forward by African-American farmers who are seeking an end to land loss and the racist policies of the Department of Agriculture which have driven millions of people from the rural areas of the South for decades. Rallies were held in Washington, D.C., Little Rock, Memphis, Jackson, MS, Montgomery, Columbus, GA, Columbia, SC 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture. 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 which was 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 Obama had included in the first budget of the current administration that was 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.

“The primary issue now, I think, is that there’s not money appropriated to pay the successful claimants,” according to Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., who is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture on February 15, John Boyd, the President of the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) presented 538 ears of corns 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 that “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.” ((PRWEB, Feb. 15)

Speaking for thousands of African-American farmers and their supporters throughout the country, Boyd said “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 press conference held on February 4, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responded to a question related to 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)

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

Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund spokesperson Heather Gray said of the recent settlement that “After years of negotiations and questions, 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 Executive Director of the Federation, 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 phenomena 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 Department of Agriculture and the banks.

Although the abolitionist movement fought for decades to end slavery in the United States, it would take a bloody four year Civil War to bring about the collapse of this institution rooted in the extreme exploitation and oppression of 4 million Africans in the United States. The question of what provisions would be made for the former slaves, as well as 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. For example, in St. Helena Island and Port Royal, SC in 1863, the Union government issued confiscated land to philanthropists who hired Freedmen to produce cotton and to make arrangements for mortgages so that Africans could purchase farm land for themselves.

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 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,” he cites the work of earlier scholars in documenting the degree of land acquisition in the aftermath of slavery and reconstruction. 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.”

Reynolds goes on to point out that “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 non-white owners until 1900. Census figures show 1920 was the peak year in the number of nonwhite owners of farmland in the South.”

The author continues by stating that “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 with the rise of terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the abandonment of reconstruction by the federal government, this 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 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 which 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, it was reported by the U.S. Census of Agriculture 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 United States.

The Need for Support of the African-American Farmers Struggle

With the consistent efforts on the part African-American farmers through their organizations such as the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund and the National Black Farmers Association, the federal government has been forced to at least address their demands. Nonetheless, it will take support from civil rights organizations, trade unions and progressive forces in general to ensure that the Obama administration and Congress upholds its pledges to provide compensation for African-American farmers.

The plight of African-American farmers constitute 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 through millions of job losses and home foreclosures. Consequently, the fight for justice for African-Americans farmers must be raised alongside other demands including an end to home foreclosures, evictions, utility shut-offs and for 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.

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