The Obama administration reached a historic $1.25 billion settlement last month in a long-standing lawsuit over decades of racial discrimination against African-American farmers by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The agreement depended on Congress approving funding by March 31, and an amendment to do so was introduced by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). But on Friday, Congress adjourned for a two-week Easter recess without appropriating the money, leaving the deal in doubt.
The agreement stipulated that if lawmakers failed to act by the end of this month, farmers could reject the agreement and pursue a new one.
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John Boyd Jr., a Virginia farmer who heads the National Black Farmers Association, placed the blame for the missed deadline squarely on the president, telling Reuters that Obama failed to show the necessary leadership to get Congress to act.
“The president didn’t help us finish the job,” Boyd said.
The 2008 Farm Bill provided for $100 million in payments, and since then black farmers have been waiting — and fighting — for the rest of the money. Earlier this year, the NBFA held demonstrations in Washington as well as historically black farming areas of the South including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia to press for action.
The settlement was announced on Feb. 18 by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“With the settlement announced today, USDA and the African American farmers who brought this litigation can move on to focus on their future,” Holder said at the time. “The plaintiffs can move forward and have their claims heard — with the federal government standing not as an adversary, but as a partner.”
The settlement came in a class-action lawsuit originally filed against the USDA in 1997 by Timothy Pigford, a North Carolina farmer who sought to buy his own land after farming on rented acreage for years. He was turned down for a loan by the Farmers Home Administration, an agency with roots in the Great Depression that serves as a lender of last resort.
The local committees created by the agency to decide who got loans were often made up only of whites unsympathetic to the needs of black farmers. After having his loan request rejected, Pigford lost his home.
Investigations found that black farmers were denied loans or given smaller loans than requested more often than whites. They also found that black farmers were foreclosed on more aggressively than white farmers.
A $1 billion settlement in the original Pigford case was reached in 1999, with more than 13,000 farmers receiving payments of $50,000. That was then expanded into Pigford II to include thousands of other black farmers who were excluded from the first suit. It’s thought that as many as 70,000 farmers could qualify for payments under the latest settlement.
Last week, Boyd noted that the appropriation deadline was approaching and that thousands of black farmers were anxiously watching the calendar — and President Obama.
“He looked real good and sounded very good and strong on health care this past week and we really need that same type of fire,” Boyd said in a statement issued last Tuesday. “So I’m calling on the President to take immediate action and to finish the job that he started and bring justice to the black farmers.”
Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) are among the lawmakers taking steps to ensure action is taken on the settlement when Congress returns on April 12, the Montgomery Advertiser reports.
The farmers’ lawsuit originally sought $2.5 billion. However, the plaintiffs accepted the smaller settlement amount because the administration agreed to move quickly to get the money to the farmers, many of whom are elderly.