BY SUSAN LAMONT AND RONALD MARTIN
TCHULA, Mississippi - The northeastern part of this state - some 7,000 square miles of flat, fertile farm land formed by the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers' flood plain - is known as the Delta.
The Delta's population is overwhelmingly Black. The area is known for its poverty in the U.S. state that ranks last in per capita personal income. And it is known for the degree to which old attitudes and practices from the South's segregationist past still have a hold. But it is also home to fighting Black farmers and workers who are determined to see some changes made, including farmers who are part of the historic fight against the discriminatory practices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Eddie Carthan, 49, runs an old-fashioned hardware store in this small Delta town. A longtime civil rights leader in the area, he is also president of the Mississippi Family Farmers and an activist in a class-action suit by Black farmers against the USDA.
After his father's death in 1983, Carthan began farming his family's land, raising cotton, soybeans, and wheat on 600 acres near Tchula. He was pushed out of farming in 1997 by the cost- price squeeze that all small farmers face, exacerbated by the government's discriminatory lending policies toward farmers who are Black. Now he rents out his land to other farmers.
"The Mississippi Family Farmers, which is a statewide organization formed in 1985, predates the current USDA suit," Carthan explained in a recent interview with these Militant correspondents held in his busy hardware store. "So many Black farmers had problems with government and local lending institutions. The white plantation owners, banks, and FmHA [Farmers Home Administration] were trying to get rid of Black farmers, so we came together to save Black farmers and to encourage young people and women to get into the business." The FmHA, now part of the USDA's Farm Service Agency, was set up in the 1930s under mass pressure, to provide loans to working farmers on better terms than the commercial banks.
"In the 1980s and early '90s, we held meetings and forums and workshops, trying to help farmers get the help they needed from the government. When no help was forthcoming, we tried to file an antidiscrimination suit ourselves in the early '90s against the USDA. But we had trouble getting lawyers and the money to file," Carthan noted. Finally, they decided to join with other Black farmers from Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia, and other states in the current lawsuit, which includes some 125 farmers from Mississippi.
Farmers discuss proposed settlement
Black farmers here are discussing the recent settlement proposal from the U.S. Department of Justice, which represents the USDA in the federal court suit. In late November, hundreds of Black farmers attended three meetings in Selma, Alabama; Pine Bluff, Arkansas; and Durham, North Carolina, to hear the Justice Department's proposed settlement of their $2.5 billion class-action antidiscrimination suit, filed in 1997. Under terms of the proposal, farmers would be divided into two classes. Class A, which would include between 2,000 and 4,000 farmers, would be required to provide relatively little documentation to prove discrimination. They would receive $50,000 each, and their loan debts to the government would be written off. They would also get tax relief on the $50,000 and the debt relief.
Other farmers - a much smaller number, according to the farmers' lawyers - would be in class B. If they have extensive documentation, they could ask for an arbitration hearing, where they could get a much larger settlement - or a much smaller one, or none at all. A farmer who was not awarded just compensation by such a hearing would not be able to appeal the decision.
"This settlement will solve some problems," Carthan said, "but it's not near justice or fair, nowhere close."
Some Black farmers in Mississippi are living on land that has been in their family for generations, since after the Civil War. "A lot of Black farmers have lost their land through trickery and thievery," Carthan said. "Those who remain have caught hell, trying to survive. Now the government has admitted it has discriminated against Blacks, but they're refusing to adequately pay for their illegal, discriminatory practices." The proposed settlement does not include punitive damages for pain and suffering over the years, repayment for loss of property, and other losses suffered by Black farmers, he noted.
Part of the proposed settlement would include a federally appointed monitor to make sure discriminatory practices didn't continue at the USDA. Carthan expressed concern that the lawsuit settlement doesn't adequately address the structural problems with the USDA that would remain if the case is settled, to really end the discriminatory practices.
"Every county has a supervisor hired by the federal government, who then sets up a local board to oversee farm loans and other farm programs," Carthan explained. "Some of these boards are elected, others appointed." The virtually all- white boards in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South are the ones who have been denying or delaying loans and refusing to treat Black farmers' complaints seriously for decades. "It would be hard for a Black to even be allowed to serve on one," Carthan said.
`A very corrupt system'
After Carthan started farming in 1983, it took him three years to get a government loan, after being turned down several times each year he tried. Carthan lost some of his farm equipment during that time, along with $40,000 he had raised as a mortgage.
"It is a very corrupt system," Carthan said. "You go through all this trouble, and if you do finally get a loan, it's too late. After all, farming is a timing operation.
"If you did get to plant [cotton], come harvest time, the cotton gin in this area are all owned by white cooperatives, and they wouldn't gin our cotton," he added. "So we had to take it 30 or 40 miles away, where they charged more. The gins make money from the oil and seed they remove from the cotton, but still they would charge the Black farmers." The system is rigged in other ways, he noted. Any USDA program to supplement farmers' income is based on yield, which the gin certifies to the government. White farmers are always certified with high yields, the Black farmers with low ones. "The same official who works for the local USDA board has a relative who works in the local bank," Carthan described. "These are the same people who are trying to get your land, through delaying your loans, selling you bad seed, and in other ways." Carthan's father was sold bad cotton seed one year, but the crop year was over by the time he discovered it. "They try to break your spirit by going after you in all kinds of ways," Carthan said. He recalled one county USDA supervisor who essentially stole money from Black farmers, taking advantage of the fact that some of them could not read. After it was discovered, "He was not fired," Carthan said, "just moved to another office."
In the Delta, much of the land is owned by white plantation owners. "These are white farmers who own large tracts of land, with laborers living and working on his land. He owns the land and the houses. It's like agribusiness. There aren't many small farmers who are white," he said. To get around government ceilings on subsidies a farmer can get, some of these plantation owners divide up their land, putting sections of it in their workers' names - and then collect the additional subsidies themselves.
Tchula's first Black mayor
Carthan brings several decades of hard-fought experience to bear in the Black farmers' current struggle. In 1977, Carthan was elected mayor of Tchula, the first Black ever to be elected mayor of a biracial town in the Delta. He was forced out of office in 1981, just one month shy of completing his first term, after being convicted on trumped-up charges of assaulting a police officer. He was given a three-year prison sentence. After seven months, the governor suspended the rest of his sentence.
When Carthan took office, he recalled, Tchula was still segregated, with whites living on one side of the railroad tracks, and Blacks - who were 85 percent of the population -on the other. In the Black community, roads were unpaved, there were no sidewalks or streetlights, 80 percent of the houses had no indoor plumbing, other social services were poor or missing entirely. There were no Blacks heading up any city department, and many Blacks "did not know where the City Hall was," Carthan recalled.
Carthan sought to bring in improved housing, medical care, as well as water and sewage programs to the Black community. In an effort to punish him and put the Black community back in its place, the local white business and landowning establishment began "investigating" him from the moment he took office. "It was a legal lynching and a political lynching," Carthan said.
Before he was even released from prison on the assault charges, Carthan was again framed up -- this time on charges that he had murdered a city alderman a year earlier, in 1980. He was finally acquitted of the murder charge, after his case became known nationally and internationally, including through the pages of the Militant, which campaigned for his release.
While in jail facing the murder charges, he was framed up again, this time on charges of giving false information to a local bank. Sentenced in 1982 to three years in federal prison, he was released by judge's order after eight months.
A victim of frame-up himself, Carthan has lent his support to other fighters under attack. He was a prominent supporter of Mark Curtis, the union activist and Socialist Workers Party member from Des Moines, Iowa, who was framed up on rape and burglary charges and imprisoned from 1988 to 1996. Carthan lent his support to the international defense campaign that finally won Curtis' release.
Susan LaMont is a member of United Steelworkers of America Local 2122 in Fairfield, Alabama. Ronald Martin is a member of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Local 108 in Birmingham.
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