Commentary by Marc H. Morial, President National Urban League
WASHINGTON - “Black farmers have waited many years for this day – the end of denied justice, the dawn of a new era of equality." John Boyd, President of the National Black Farmers Association
As many as 80,000 Black farmers received an early New Year’s present from President Obama on December 8th, when he signed the Claims Resolution Act of 2010 into law. This legislation, which has been debated in Congress for more than a decade, funds a $1.5 billion lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for years of discrimination against Black farmers in federal farm loan programs. It awards as much as $50,000 each to African American farmers who were denied federal loans during the 1980’s because of the color of their skin. President Obama, who was a sponsor of the legislation as a Senator, said this closes “a painful chapter in American history.” National Black Farmers Association president, John Boyd, who in September rode his tractor through the streets of Washington as part of his relentless campaign in support of the legislation, called it a belated but important “vindication and justice for Black farmers.”
The National Urban League, The Congressional Black Caucus and other civil rights leaders have long-championed this legislation. It is an outgrowth of an original class-action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, filed in 1997 and settled in 1999. The new law awards $50,000 to tens of thousands of aggrieved Black farmers who were left out of that original settlement. Many Black farmers have lost their farms waiting for this compensation. Some have died waiting. In August of this year, I called Senate delays a clear case of political obstructionism and a violation of civil rights. Upon passage of the final bill Attorney General Eric Holder said, “This is a settlement that addressed a historical wrong…and offers a new relationship between the many deserving Americans and the federal agencies that play an important role in their lives.”
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack added, “President Obama and I made a firm commitment not only to treat all farmers fairly and equally, but to right the wrongs in USDA’s past. I applaud those who took this historic step to ensure Black farmers who faced discrimination by their government finally receive justice.”
John Boyd said that President Obama “made good on a campaign promise…Down in places like Mississippi these are poor communities and they need this money to help get their lives together.” But for Boyd, this is just the first step. He will now lead the effort to educate Black farmers and help those who are eligible, file their claims and have their cases heard. “The goal is to avoid a repeat of what happened during the first settlement of this case when many found out about it too late or did not file in time.”
Along with health care reform, and financial reform, the National Urban League counts this settlement on behalf of Black farmers as one of President Obama’s major accomplishments of 2010. But while this victory was a demonstration of important progress, the President rightfully pointed out, “We must remember that much work remains to be done.” We look forward to working with him in the New Year to keep moving America forward.