A new milestone was reached Feb. 18 in a longstanding civil rights case brought by African American farmers who suffered discrimination in federal loans and subsidies. Many of the farmers incurred huge debts or lost their land as a result.
In announcing a $1.25 billion settlement in the 1997 lawsuit filed by Timothy Pigford and hundreds of other African American farmers who said the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against them between 1983 and 1997, Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack called on Congress to approve the funding. President Obama had included funds for the settlement in his 2010 budget request but Congress still hasn't approved the 2010 farm bill. The president has renewed the request in his 2011 budget. A federal judge must also okay the settlement.
Vilsack told reporters he would "focus all my time and resources" on assuring the settlement. "The president is prepared to indicate that it's a priority not just for his administration but for the country."
In a statement, Obama praised Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder for "bringing these long-ignored claims of African American farmers to a rightful conclusion."
The Clinton administration had earlier paid $1 billion to some 16,000 African American farmers in 1999, but an estimated 70,000 or more farmers missed the filing deadline because they failed to receive the information in time. The National Black Farmers Association and the Congressional Black Caucus fought to reopen the settlement.
Once Congress approves the funds, farmers will be able to apply for up to $50,000 and debt relief through an expedited process, or they can seek damages of up to $250,000 through a more detailed procedure.
The settlement "moves us an important step closer to a just resolution of the Black farmers' cases," National Black Farmers Association president Dr. John Boyd said in a statement. Commending Vilsack and Holder for their leadership, Boyd added, "Next week another Black farmer will lose his farm. Others are at risk of not living to see justice. These farmers have waited for years, and simply cannot wait any longer for final resolution."
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said she is "encouraged that today's settlement is an opportunity for Black farmers who were denied the benefit of USDA loans and programs to be made whole." Lee told the Washington Post that "lack of access to loans and other assistance which were provided to other farmers" was partly to blame for a nearly 50 percent drop over the last two decades in the number of farms operated by Black farmers.
The NAACP said it is "fully committed" to working with USDA and the Congress to make sure the funds are appropriated.
In 1980 the North Carolina Black Farmers organization filed a discrimination complaint against the USDA's credit arm, the Farmers Home Association. An investigation by the Office of Equal Opportunity showed discrimination in real estate appraisals of Black owned farmlands, and in the number and amount of emergency loans they received.
The National Black Farmers Association later obtained USDA figures showing that of nearly 23,000 loans the Farmers Home Association granted in 1997, only 2.3 percent went to Black farmers.
In recent weeks the Black farmers have held demonstrations in Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia and South Carolina as well as in Washington, D.C.
Under Obama the Department of Agriculture has hired field investigators for the first time since 1997. Last year it suspended foreclosures for 30 days to check loans for possible discrimination.