Black farmers protest
Denied loans but determined to farm
Black farmers and supporters in Washington September 23 protest government discrimination. Action was initiated by John Boyd, driving tractor, and Robert Binion, with megaphone.
BY SUSAN LAMONT
WASHINGTONFive dozen Black farmers and their supporters marched from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to the Capitol September 23, demanding equal treatment and government compensation to settle a long-standing discrimination lawsuit.
Farmers came from Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, Kansas, and North Carolina, and were joined by supporters from the Washington area. The action was initiated by John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA), and Robert Binion, a 61-year-old peach farmer from Clanton, Alabama. Also participating in the protests was Lawrence Lucas, president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, which supports the Black farmers fight.
My father was a sharecropper, said Lester Bonner, 63, a farmer from Dinwiddie, Virginia. In 1987 my brother and I tried to get a $15,000 USDA loan so we could buy 138 acres our family owned back in 1893. The USDA said 'no' and we had to borrow the money from a friend. Thats how they treat us.
What they [USDA] have done to us is very wrong, said Thomas Franklin, 71, from Marion, Alabama. He raises cattle, goats, and garden vegetables in Perry County on land that belonged to his father. Like many of those at the march, he is a veteran of both the civil rights movement and farmer protests.
Its harder now than ever for a Black farmer to get a loan from the USDA, Franklin said. You have to be a lawyer to fill out the application and you have to be a banker to get a loan. You have to have A1 credit, and if youre Black, they still automatically say no. Denied loans but determined to keep farming, Franklin simultaneously worked for 23 years as a union steelworker at the Empire Coke plant in Tuscaloosa and at other jobs.
Along with thousands of other Black farmers, Franklin filed a claim in the 1997 Pigford v. Glickman class-action lawsuit. That suit charged the USDA with decades of racist discrimination by denying Black farmers access to loans and other farm programs.
The 1999 consent decree settling Pigford v. Glickman promised a $50,000 paymentas well as loan forgiveness, tax breaks, and priority consideration for future loansas long as farmers provided substantial evidence of discrimination.
Of the original 22,547 claims filed, 41 percent were denied. An additional 75,000 claims were turned down on the basis that farmers filed after a September 2000 deadline. Refusing to accept this situation, Black farmers have been fighting for more than a decade to extend compensation.
Finally, $100 million in additional funds was allocated in the 2008 Farm Bill. The Barack Obama administration requested an additional $1.15 billion, bringing the total to $1.25 billion. This was passed by the House of Representatives in May, but the Senate has repeatedly blocked release of the money.
Sign an executive order!
The day before the march a delegation of farmers met with Joe Leonard, head of the USDA Office of Civil Rights, and other USDA officials.
We go to USDA offices today in Alabama and they refuse to give us loans, Binion told the USDA staffers. Not in 1986, but today
. Everybody is watching the USDA hang us, from the president on down, and they dont do anything. Okay, now go to Obama and tell him to sign an executive order.
I have applied for loans many times and been denied, added Willie James Brown, 79, from Marbury, Alabama, who farms 365 acres. And youve always been denied? asked Leonard pointedly. I got a loan once 20 years ago, Brown replied.
Three out of the last four years, weve had floods, said George Hildebrandt, from Leavenworth, Kansas, whose farm is on the Missouri River. His great-grandfather got the land in 1880 under the 1862 Homestead Act, which provided free land to those who wanted to farm after the Civil War.
Ive asked for loans to raise the levees to save my home, and theyve denied me every time. You go into the office and its lily-white, and they look at you like youre the janitor.
In face of relentless questioning by the farmers, Leonard and other USDA officials responded that they had to have specifics. You may have been discriminated against all your life, said Leonard, but we have to have the paperwork.
Farmers also met September 22 with staff from the office of Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat from Arkansas who heads the Senate Agricultural Committee. This fight has gone on for too long, Binion told Lincolns staff. If the Senate wont pass the funding, why cant Senator Lincoln and others who say they support us go to President Obama and ask him to sign an executive order?
Class at Bowie State
Farmer Thomas Franklin and Jesse Binion, son of Robert Binion, spoke to a rural sociology class at Bowie State University, a nearby historically Black college, the same day on the invitation of Professor Dorothy Fardan. Students listened with rapt attention as Franklin described the conditions facing sharecroppers like his father during the decades of segregation before the massive civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60swhich he and many other Black farmers were part ofbrought down Jim Crow in the South.
At a news conference outside the Capitol September 23, NBFA president John Boyd introduced Democratic senators Kay Hagan from North Carolina and Blanche Lincoln, who told marchers they, along with Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, were going to introduce a stand-alone measure to pay farmers.
Every Black person in this country is one or two generations away from farming, Boyd said, thanking everyone for their participation. We are going to finish this fight, Robert Binion said before his bus headed back to Alabama. Even if they pass the funding, we are not going to sleep until every Black farmer gets justice.
Chris Hoeppner contributed to this article.