WASHINGTON - With Black farmers applauding during a Sept. 23 rally on the Capitol grounds, Senators Kay Hagen of North Carolina and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, both Democrats, unveiled their bill to provide $1.25 billion to compensate African American farmers for decades of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The open-air rally came at the end of a march by Black farmers and their families from the Agriculture Department building to Capitol Hill. The protesters walked behind a tractor driven by John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association. They carried a big banner that read, "Black Farmers Demand Justice."
Sen. Hagen told the crowd, "Since I came to the Senate, I have been working tirelessly to rectify this injustice. Over 4,000 African American farmers in my state of North Carolina and 75,000 across the country are waiting for their settlement. Unfortunately, the Congress has failed to live up to its obligations."
Hagen, joined by Sens. Lincoln and Mary Landrieu, D-La., introduced a free-standing bill yesterday to fund the $1.25 billion settlement authored by President Obama and approved in a House funding bill in August.
Funding for the settlement had also been attached to a Senate spending bill, but it was dropped at the last minute in the face of Republican opposition. The only Republican who has endorsed the Hagan-Lincoln-Landrieu bill is Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley.
Sen. Lincoln said, "It is way past the time we passed this. We know what the issue is. We need to get the resources to these farmers." Tens of thousands have already lost their farms due to discrimination in granting federal crop loans that are routinely approved for white farmers.
Lincoln said Congress must also extend the statute of limitations used to deny benefits to Black farmers who missed the deadline to apply under the so-called Pigford lawsuit upheld by a federal judge. She also called for creation of a civil rights office in the Agriculture Department. "We need to make sure that discrimination in the USDA is gone."
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the opponents of the settlement always argue it will swell the federal deficit, "and yet we found the money to fund two wars and tax cuts for the wealthy. This has exacerbated an economic catastrophe for Black farmers. The time to correct this injustice is now."
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said she has "walked the walk" in rural Texas and seen Black farmers "scratching out a living, helping feed America, and these farmers could not get assistance from their own Agriculture Department. We are waiting for someone on the Republican side, someone from the 'Party of No' to help deliver justice."
Boyd, who operates a small farm in Virginia, told the rally he drove his tractor, renamed "Justice," to Capitol Hill that day as he has every day so far in September. "I will keep on driving it up here until justice is done."
"The Black farmers are dying," he said. "This loss and this discrimination is real. It breaks down lives, tears apart families. We want this bill passed now!"
He thanked the Congressional Black Caucus for pushing the $1.25 billion settlement through the House. He also thanked Obama for introducing a bill to compensate farmers when he was a senator from Illinois.
"And we thank President Obama for reaching this really historic settlement," Boyd said. "For years I walked the corridors in Washington and it did not happen under President Bush." The crowd applauded.
Boyd told the People's World, "I'm very hopeful the Senate will act on this in September." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid "said he will try to move it," Boyd added. "We need two Republican senators. So far we have one, Chuck Grassley of Iowa."
Photo: Sen. Kay Hagen, D-N.C., listens at right as Rep. Barbara Lee speaks at Capitol Hill rally for justice for Black farmers, Sept. 23. (PW/Tim Wheeler)