(L to R) CBC Chair Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA); John Boyd, head of the National Black Farmers Association; and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) showing support for the Black farmers bill.
Special to the Los Angeles Sentinel from NNPA
The Senate cleared a $1.15 billion appropriations measure last week to settle a decades-old discrimination suit by Black farmers, paving the way for one of the largest civil rights settlements in history, if the bill clears the House. The nation’s Black farmers were awarded the money as part of a larger $4.6 billion dollar settlement awarded to them and Native American farmers.
The action stems from the settlement of Pigford v. Glickman, a class-action lawsuit named after Timothy Pigford, a Black farmer from North Carolina. Pigford’s suit claimed that Black farmers received little or no U.S. Department of Agriculture support in the form of loans and grants compared to their White counterparts. The case, which began in 1997, saw a settlement reached in 1999 that stated qualified farmers could receive $50,000 to settle claims of racial bias.
However, many farmers missed the filing deadline to receive payment. A settlement reached last February allowed those farmers to resume pursuit of their claims.
“The passage of this bill is long overdue,” said John Boyd, head of the National Black Farmers Association, in a statement. “Black farmers have already died at the plow waiting for justice,” Boyd told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “I hope the ones who are living will see justice. The amount of money will not put farmers back into business”.
The appropriations bill was stalled in the Senate for months while Democrats and Republicans fought over how to pay for the settlement. The stalemate was broken during the first week of the lame duck session of the 111th Congress when Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) dropped an objection to the package, after Senate leaders agreed not to finance it through additional deficit spending.
The matter now goes to the House where even more recalcitrance is expected from lawmakers who contend that the settlement adds to what they consider excessive spending at a time of federal budget deficits. According to the USA Today, the settlement will be paid for from a surplus in nutrition programs for women and children and by extending customs user fees.
President Barack Obama praised the Senate for ending that chamber’s refusal to clear the settlement. In a statement, he expressed hope that the House would follow in the Senate’s footsteps and pass the bill as well. “I applaud the Senate for passing the Claims Settlement Act of 2010, which will at long last provide funding for the agreements reached in the Pigford II lawsuit, brought by African American farmers, and the Cobell lawsuit, brought by Native Americans over the management of Indian trust accounts and resources,” President Obama said. “I urge the House to move forward with this legislation as they did earlier this year, and I look forward to signing it into law,” he continued.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), Chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, also echoed the President’s praise with the following statement after Senate passage of the Pigford/Cobell settlement stating: “For far too long justice has been delayed, and thus denied, for African American farmers and Native American trust holders. Today’s action by the Senate brings us one step closer to settling two great injustices that have tragically lingered for decades. I urge my colleagues in the House of Representatives to act swiftly to bring closure for the many Black farmers who lost their farms due to racial bias and Native Americans disadvantaged by the federal government’s mismanagement of funds, she concluded.
And Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also added his comments on the Senate’s action:
“President Obama and I pledged not only to treat all farmers fairly and equally, but to right the wrongs of the past for farmers who faced discrimination. Today, the Senate took a bold step and provided the funding to give relief to black farmers who have suffered from discrimination that is well-documented and has been affirmed by the courts. I want to commend Senator Reid, Senator Grassley, and the bipartisan coalition of Senators for their leadership in working to right these wrongs.
“This announcement marks a major milestone in USDA’s efforts to turn the page on a sad chapter in our history. Civil rights is a top priority of mine, and since coming to USDA, I have implemented a comprehensive program to correct past errors, learn from mistakes, and take definitive action to ensure that all of our customers are treated fairly. This announcement is yet another step to help move us forward into a new era as a model employer and premier service provider.”
The legislation also included an extension of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and settlements for Native American water rights.