On April 11, a man named John M. Bonner, of the small town Dinwiddie, Virginia, passed away. He was 87 years old. A pioneer of the Black Farmers' Movement, which fought for equal treatment in rural county agriculture offices, farming was Bonner's lifelong passion. He was also one of thousands of plaintiffs in a longstanding discrimination suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture--but with the government dragging its feet on paying the settlement money, Bonner died before ever getting a cent.
"It's too late for him, and I want to prevent that for other Black farmers," said John Boyd, president of the Black Farmers Association, who delivered Bonner's eulogy. "If the President is committed to this issue like his staff says he is, then why can't we sit down and talk about it?"
The U.S. government forked over nearly $1 million in a 1999 lawsuit, in which roughly 13,000 Black farmers proved they had been viciously, and routinely, discriminated against in USDA farm loan programs. But thousands of more eligible farmers who were allowed to join the suit in 2008--thanks to a bill co-sponsored by then Senator Obama--are still waiting for their money. In February President Obama announced a $1.15 billion settlement for these additional farmers, but so far Congress has not appropriated the payout.
The initial deadline for Congress to deliver the payment passed last month, and the process appears to still be...stuck.
Boyd has met with members of the Obama administration, who insist the President is committed to drawing the issue to a close, but a clear solution has not been mapped out. "We really need the President to spell out to Congress how this is going to happen," said Boyd, who claims that Congressional leadership tells him that they're waiting to get direction from the administration on how to move forward.
There has been some promising news from Congress, however, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid releasing a statement this week on the matter. After describing meetings with both Black and Native American farmers who have suffered discrimination by the USDA, Reid called on the Senate to do its part to appropriate the money for their settlements.
"Several agreements were reached earlier this year, but the Senate must act to fully resolve them. We should also resolve other long-standing discrimination cases at the Department of Agriculture," said Reid. "It's often said that justice delayed is justice denied. The time for delay has passed. Now it's time for us to close every last one of these cases, once and for all."
The new deadline for Congress to appropriate the money is May 31.
"I'm not doubting whether the president is committed or not--we're far beyond that issue at this point," said Boyd. "The issue is the Black farmers don't have their money. That's the bottom line."