Tuesday, September 28, 2010

African-American Farmers Continue Struggle to Win Compensation

African-American Farmers Continue Struggle to Win Compensation

Protests in Washington, D.C. prompts new Senate bill to address discrimination

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

A march led by African-American farmers on September 27 in Washington, D.C. represented the continuation of a series of activities during the month that highlighted the failure of the United States Senate to pass legislation that would grant $1.15 billion in funds to plaintiffs in a discrimination lawsuit that dates back to the 1990s. Even though the Department of Agriculture had agreed to settle the suit, known as the “Pigford Case,” most farmers were denied claims by the federal government bureaucracy.

In 2009, the Obama administration agreed to include funding for settling outstanding claims by thousands of African-American farmers in the annual budget. However, despite the fact that the House of Representatives passed the bill, the Senate excluded the appropriations that were tacked on to defense spending legislation.

John Boyd, President of the National Black Farmers Association, had been in Washington for more than a week driving a tractor called “Justice.” He had visited the Senate where he urged members to pass legislation that would grant compensation for decades of discrimination by the USDA.

Boyd said that “It’s discrimination. It’s about justice. Black farmers have not been getting justice.” (NNPA, September 27)

Marching alongside Boyd and other farmers were members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) who included the former Chairwoman Maxine Waters of California, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and current leader Barbara Lee of California as well. Waters said that “I was pleased to join my friend John Boyd of the National Black Farmers Association, and many Black farmers and their families and friends to urge the Senate to fund the $1.15 billion settlement owed to these hard working Americans.” (NNPA, September 27)

Waters went on to say that “I have been working on this issue for almost 15 years, as Chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus in the late ‘90s, I worked closely with my CBC colleagues to urge then-Attorney General Janet Reno to waive the statute of limitations so that farmers could redress decades of financial and racial discrimination with the Department of Justice.” (NNPA, September 27)

At the news conference after the march, Senators Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who is chair of the Agricultural Committee, stood next to Boyd saying that they would introduce a standalone bill with Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana to provide funding for the $1.15 billion settlement.

Hagan said at the news conference that “We’re working together to send this language to the President as quickly as possible because our Black farmers have waited too long. We want to ensure Black farmers in our country finally receive the justice they deserve.” (NNPA, September 27)

In another appeal from the Network of Black Farm Groups and Advocates dated September 24, Heather Gray, the Director of Communications for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, stated that “we are attempting to reach out to as many organizations as possible to sign-on to a letter demanding action from the Senate.” (federation.coop, September 26)

The letter received by the Senate on September 27 said that “We, the organizations listed below, join the Network of Black Farm Groups in demanding immediate action by the Senate in passage of legislation to fund the Black farmer settlement (known as Pigford v. Vilsack) Black farmers in the case have waited for more than a decade for a resolution of their cases. This is far too long.” (Letter to Senate, September 24)

Some of the groups listed in the network include the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation, Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, Land Loss Prevention Project, Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project, Rural Advancement Fund, among others. In addition, there were numerous support organizations listed as signatories to the letter including the NAACP, National Farmers Union, the Malcolm X Center for Self-Determination, The Rural Library Project, Inc. and a host of other groups from around the United States.

Standalone Bill Demanded

In previous efforts to win compensation in the Pigford II Case, appropriations for settlements were attached to other legislation. African-American farmers are demanding that any new effort should be channeled through separate and specific legislation designed to award claims.

John Boyd stated recently that “I am calling for a cloture vote on a stand-alone black farmers’ bill. While there are lots of very important causes, the black farmers know that unless this bill is considered on its own merits other bills that have nothing to do with this issue—including the Cobell Native American trust fund case—may keep it from passing.” (Indian Country Today, September 27)

Boyd continued by pointing out that “Black farmers are dying, in fact another farmer active in the movement died this past week, and I can’t let politicians use other issues as excuses not to vote on justice for Black farmers.” Plaintiffs in the Cobell case have not received any compensation either despite the fact that the Obama administration supported a $3.4 billion proposal.

Thousands of Cobell plaintiffs would receive $1,000-2,000 in payments, amounts that their representatives argued are far too small to compensate Native Americans for over a century of the Interior Department’s misuse and exploitation of their lands. Dennis Gingold, the lawyer for the Native American plaintiffs in the Cobell case, said that “The Black Caucus is unhappy that Pigford II was stripped from tax extenders, and it will oppose any supplemental war appropriations bill unless Pigford is on it.” (Indian Country Today, September 27)

Nonetheless, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada favors keeping the two lawsuit settlements conjoined saying “Many American Indians have been waiting; some have died waiting, for this settlement to be funded by the Congress. I support passing settlement funding that pays the plaintiffs in both the Pigford II and Cobell settlements.” (Indian Country Today, September 27)

Whether the two cases are settled separately or together, the amounts of compensation in question can in no way ameliorate the Native and African peoples for their centuries-long suffering as a result of forced removals, enslavement and national discrimination. All oppressed nations in the U.S. have a right to reparations and complete self-determination.

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