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Community Voices: Black farmers still await discrimination settlement

GLORIA J. BROWNE-MARSHALL

For everything there is a season — a time to plant and a time to sow. Black farmers know of seasons. They plowed the earth under burning sun and weathered stormy nights. They faced disasters both natural and man-made.

Yet, it was discrimination by their own government that dealt a death blow to many black farms. And, finally, after years of prolonged litigation, and dozens of attorneys, they may soon reap a bountiful harvest.

It will be the largest settlement in civil rights history — $1.25 billion. But the plaintiffs in “Pigford v. Glickman” have been disappointed before. As the May 11 deadline to claim the money approaches this year, this great achievement in civil rights remains overshadowed by bickering and fear of further disappointment.    

Black farmers have been embattled for 150 years. Following their bravery in the Civil War, General William T. Sherman promised 40 acres of land and a mule. That promise was lost with the death of President Abraham Lincoln. Despite schemes to defraud them and unfair laws which beset their every endeavor, black farmers persevered. So did racism.   

On September 30, 1919, in Elaine, Arkansas, Phillips County, black farmers were slaughtered for attempting to gain better prices for their crops. The farmers met to discuss joining the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. They wanted a union in order to end the low prices.

Rumors of a black insurrection brought mobs of angry whites to their church meeting. Armed whites surrounded the building. A shoot-out ensued leaving over 100 black farmers dead. Not surprisingly, given the state of race relations during the turn of the century, the Elaine Riots resulted in the arrest of seventy black farmers. No whites were prosecuted. Twelve black farmers were convicted and sentenced to death.

The trial was anything but a model of justice. Torture was used to gain confessions, evidence was falsified, and witnesses intimidated. The trial lasted only a few hours.

Walter White, President of the NAACP, investigated. Scipio A. Jones, a renowned black attorney from Little Rock, represented Frank Moore and the other the men on death row. “Moore v. Dempsey” was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Jones argued that the jury, facing a lynch mob at the courthouse, was forced to give guilty verdicts despite evidence to the contrary. In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the men had not received a fair trial. Finally, in 1925, the black farmers were pardoned by Arkansas Governor Thomas C. McRae.

But by then, the damage had been done. In 1920, black farmers owned 14 percent of America’s farm land. By 1992, their share of farm land was 1 percent.

At the heart of black farmers discrimination case was the reliance on U.S. Department of Agriculture (DOA) for loans and assistance. Without these loans, both white and black farmers have little to support them when crops fail. The DOA was created under President Lincoln in 1862 to assist farmers.

Yet, the Department of Agriculture has an ingloriously long history of systemic discrimination against black farmers. In 1997, black farmers sued. They brought “Pigford v. Glickman” against the Department of Agriculture, alleging discrimination in the allocation of loans and services. Daniel Glickman was Secretary of Agriculture at the time.

Another case was brought in 1999. The DOA entered into a $100 million settlement agreement with the black farmers covering discriminatory acts between 1981 and 1999. Then, this settlement was challenged by white farmers alleging reverse discrimination. Their case was dismissed.

Not every black farmer filed a claim in time to become a part of that $100 million settlement. In 2008, President Barack Obama signed the Farm Bill allowing thousands of late filers’ inclusion in the settlement. However, not even $100 million would cover the extensive damage to black farmers. Therefore, on February 18, 2010, at the request of the DOA, Congress allotted an additional $1.15 billion in the case now known as “In re Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation” bringing the total settlement with black farmers to $1.25 billion.

There are those who remain dissatisfied. Others who believe a few claimants among them are not credible. With so much at stake such bickering is inevitable.

To this granddaughter of Kansas farmers, the “Pigford” case represents significance in law and life. For, to work the land is to sustain life. Endurance learned from working that land kept black farmers steadfast. Patience gained from awaiting each new crop prepared them to wait decades for justice.

A $1.25 billion settlement cannot bring back all that was lost. However, it can compensate those without their land, assist those struggling farmers and sustain the next generation.

Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an associate professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present” and “The U.S. Constitution: An African-American Context.”