Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Justice Still Delayed for African American Farmers

Justice Still Delayed for African American Farmers

Even though Obama signed claims bill, people are having difficulty getting paid

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
News Analysis

Despite the passage of a compensation bill for African American farmers late last year, a significant sector of the oppressed nation which has suffered systematic discrimination for over a century, the process of paying out claims to these families have been stalled based upon allegations of fraud by right-wing propagandists and the role of the federal judge who is designated to oversee the process. John Boyd, the president of the National Black Farmers Association, has recently spoken out about the new round of hurdles in the struggle to win justice for the tens of thousands who have been denied equal opportunity and adequate redress.

In a news conference held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 8, Boyd told of the new obstacles facing African American farmers seeking payment for decades of institutional racism by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). These bureaucratic problems have also been worsened by the swindlers who have sought to exploit the desperation of families that are in need of immediate compensation for past wrongs.

Various scam artists have approached African American families to offer purported assistance for a fee of up to $1,000 in order to supposedly secure payment on the claims stemming from the recent bill passed in December. Yet Boyd emphasized during the press conference on Feb. 8 that there was no fee for families to apply for compensation from the USDA.

"I've heard talks of a thousand dollar fee in some parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, and in Alabama I've heard talks of a hundred dollar fee," says Boyd. "There is no fee to fill out any claims form and there is no official claims form that has been sent out. And I'm calling for a cease and desist of those persons - whoever they may be - that are doing that." (The Root, Feb. 17, 2011)

After a decade-and-a-half of litigation, the United States Congress finally reached agreement on a bill that combined both the Native American and African American claims for discrimination by the USDA and the Department of the Interior involving the Native farmers. Nonetheless, Boyd is stating that there are additional complications that have arisen in the paying out of monies to the victims of blatant mistreatment.

In a press release from the White House on Dec. 8, 2010, President Obama claimed that “Today I have signed into law H.R. 4783, the ‘Claims Resolution Act of 2010’. This act, among other things, provides funding and statutory authorities for the settlement agreements reached in the Cobell lawsuit, brought by Native Americans; the Pigford II lawsuit, brought by African American farmers; and four separate water rights suits, brought by Native American tribes.” (The White House Blog, Dec. 8, 2010)

The President went on to say “While I am pleased that this Act reflects important progress, much work remains to be done to address other claims of past discrimination made by women and Hispanic farmers against the Department of Agriculture as well as to address needs of tribal communities.”

Yet in a recent interview John W. Boyd, Jr. indicated that the federal district Judge Paul Freeman, who has been appointed to oversee the compensation procedures, had not approved the late-filer process and no finalized claim forms have been issued. Neither have any notification letters been sent out to farmers explaining the entire process. (The Root, Feb. 17)

At the same time conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart has continued to write on the purported fraudulent character of the Pigford II settlement, claiming that there are not nearly as many African American farmers in the United States as reported in the suit. When asked what he thought the motivation was of those who are trying to dispute the legitimate claims made by African American farmers, Boyd said that “I think this is a group of people who don’t want to see black people receive a dime.”

Boyd went to say that “It just seems to me that every time you raise an issue related to blacks in this country, the far-right wing tries to say that it’s somehow fraudulent. They keep saying that they don’t know where all these black farmers came from. Every African American in this country is only two or three generations away from a farm—that’s where we come from.”

From Reconstruction to Monopoly Capitalism: Land Loss and National Oppression

At the time of the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, there were approximately 4.5 million Africans residing in the United States. Nearly 4 million were slaves and the other half-million lived under conditions of national oppression and discrimination. Some 186,000 Africans fought on the side of the Union army during the war to abolish slavery, yet at the end of the conflict there were no provisions for the reparation of the oppressed African nation in the post Civil War South where most resided.

The Emancipation Proclamation was announced by President Abraham Lincoln in August of 1862 and went into effect on January 1, 1863. Yet this was a war time document and could not be fully put into practice until the conclusion of the conflict.

On the eve of the end of the Civil War in January 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the constitution that ostensibly ended slavery with the exception of imprisonment, where it is still upheld until this day. A leading Union General William T. Sherman met with freed Africans in Savannah, Georgia during this period and heard their request for land redistribution.

In response to their pleas for land, Sherman issued Field Order 15 which was supposed to set aside large areas of territory abandoned during the war along the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina on forty acre plots. Sherman also said military mules that were no longer in use would be allocated to the freed African slaves, creating the legend of the “forty acres and a mule promise” to the emancipated nation.

Later in March 1865 the United States Congress set up the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, popularly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, which would provide for the allocation of “unoccupied land” to Africans that would not exceed 40 acres. In practice Congress allowed the Freedmen’s Bureau to sell only 5 to 10 acre tracts of land to the emancipated African families.

In June 1865, 40,000 Africans occupied areas in Georgia and South Carolina known as “Sherman’s Land.” The total areas settled by Africans was approximately 400,000 acres where they created their own governmental and agricultural system and denied whites access to the region.

Nonetheless, by the Summer of 1865, President Andrew Johnson, who took over after Lincoln was assassinated, reversed Sherman’s Field Order 15 and mandated that these plantation lands be returned to the former confederate settlers who had fought to maintain chattel slavery. In 1866, the first Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress over the veto of President Johnson.

Also in 1866, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed which ostensibly made Africans citizens of the country. In 1869, the 15th Amendment was passed that supposedly guaranteed the right to vote for African American males in the United States.

However, with the formation of the Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorist organizations, Africans were forced into a defensive position and by 1877 the federal troops were withdrawn from the South leaving Africans to the mercy of the Klan and other white racist forces determined to re-institute a slave-like system in the region.

Despite these betrayals by the federal government, African families were able, through their own initiative and fortitude, to acquire 15 million acres of land by 1910. However, with the rise of industrial capitalism, the sheer terror of white racism in the South and the outmigration to urban areas in the region as well as the North and West, Africans began to lose land on a massive scale during the proceeding decades of the century.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s made tremendous gains for African Americans but the question of economic justice remained unresolved. At the time of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, the movement had begun to focus on the issues of jobs, income and political power.

Nevertheless during the 1960s and 1970s, the government’s Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and other efforts designed to maintain the national oppression of African people in the United States would take effect. The struggle of the African American farmers during the 1990s and 2000s would once again raise the question of the failure of Reconstruction and the continuing institutionalized racism and oppression of over 40 million descendants of slaves in the U.S.

Another Betrayal and the Need for a Mass Movement for National Liberation

Boyd in the above-mentioned interview pointed out that in the initial Pigford Settlement of 1999, at least 9,000 African American farmers were excluded from the compensation process. This factor is even being exploited by the right-wing opponents of the current Claims Resolution Act of 2010, who are saying that all farmers are not eligible for compensation.

Boyd agrees that more farmers have legitimate claims for compensation from the USDA. He says that “As a matter of fact, when I first wrote the bill for late filers, the farmers who had statute of limitation cases [from the original lawsuit] and the late filers were all in the same bill. But the statute of limitation cases were stripped from the bill in the House of Representatives, and that part was not funded. Those 9,000 farmers that had been denied were taken out.” (The Root, Feb. 17)

If this process is not worked out in the short-term, many African American farmers will not be compensated for their claims of discrimination by USDA. Many have died already before they could receive a dime for decades of racist denial of loans and other agricultural support.

This phenomenon illustrates the need for the re-emergence of a broad-based national liberation struggle aimed at reversing the process of disenfranchisement and oppression leveled for centuries against African people in the United States. The worsening plight of African Americans today is indicative of the failed policies of the past.

Today African Americans still have the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the country that double those of whites. In addition, according to the federal government’s own figures, poverty is escalating among African Americans, particularly women, since the advent of the current economic crisis, the most severe since the Great Depression of 1929-1941.

These findings indicate that there is no solution to the national oppression of African people under the system of racial capitalism. Only the transformation of the U.S. under socialism can address the necessity of national liberation for African people and the payment of real reparations for the centuries of exploitation and oppression.

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