Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on Thursday that the government will finally close a long, painful chapter in the history of American civil rights -- a chapter largely unnoticed by mainstream media, unnoticed even to many deeply involved in farm policy over the last several decades. It is now up to Congress to provide the funds to bring an end to this history of injustice.
Given the spread of post-Civil War discrimination across rural areas that were largely in the South, the efforts to help African Americans establish themselves and their families on the land, and that this saga continued for years, the announcement yesterday is a singular achievement. I applaud the Secretary, the Attorney General, and indeed President Obama for reaching it.
Even after serving 18 years on the House Agriculture Committee, when I became Agriculture Secretary in 1995, I was scarcely aware of this chapter in the history of USDA. As I faced my confirmation and entered office, I was prepared for the challenges of writing farm policy, the complexity of food assistance programs, and the unnerving difficulties of the historic changes in US forestry policy then unfolding. I never imagined that I would enter the vortex of this monumental civil rights challenge. I never imagined seeing black farmers circling the Department in protest, or employees angry over unresolved discrimination complaints.
But not long after taking the job, that's exactly what I encountered. After months and years of investigative work, we determined that many of these farmers were in fact subject to discriminatory practices by some USDA employees, and we also found that the civil rights record of the Department in the treatment of some of our employees was not at all stellar.
In December 1996, I ordered a suspension of government farm foreclosures across the country pending the outcome of an internal investigation into USDA's farm loan programs. I also created a Civil Rights Task Force to address racial bias at USDA. Needless to say, much of these efforts were focused on changing the culture of this important federal Department -- especially how we treated our customers and employees -- and returning its focus to what Abraham Lincoln called the "People's Department" when it was created in 1862.
In spite of that work, several farmers sued. That case, Pigford v. Glickman, laid the groundwork for the settlement Secretary Vilsack just announced. In perhaps one of the climatic episodes of facing that challenge, President Clinton gathered a delegation of the farmers, me, and other officials in the Roosevelt Room, setting the foundation for a settlement we finally reached in 1999.
By that agreement, the government paid certain farmers a sum of $50,000 and forgave much of their debt. It represented the largest such action ever agreed to by the federal government arising out of a discrimination case. At the same time, USDA undertook a series of major institutional reforms to prevent the future from becoming the past.
These earlier efforts were the foundation of the government's significant actions announced yesterday, based as well on congressional direction written into the 2008 Farm Bill. Congress was instrumental in advocating the cause of the aggrieved farmers when I was Secretary, and keeping the pressure on us to reach a fair settlement. Congress must now act again to appropriate the money Secretary Vilsack requested yesterday. It is critical, on so many levels, that it be done swiftly, and with broad, deep support. It may be one of the most important civil rights actions many Members of the current Congress ever take.
In 1996, in describing why I ordered a serried of civil rights listening sessions throughout the country with farmers and USDA employees, I said: "I don't want the vestige of discrimination to afflict this Department....this is going to be my legacy. We're going to shape this place up. Period." (Washington Post, 1/23/97).
I can't take credit for what Secretary Vilsack has now announced; he richly deserves our accolades for bringing this agreement across the line, and I surely made my share of missteps in dealing with the problem when I was at USDA. But as I look back at my tenure as Secretary, confronting this problem and moving forward to a solution is one of the things that I am most proud of. Secretary Vilsack, President Obama, and the Congress will be too when this chapter in the history of American agriculture and civil rights is closed.
Dan Glickman is chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America. He served as Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton Administration from 1995 to 2001 and previously was a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Kansas' 4th Congressional District for 18 years. On April 1, 2010, he will step down from the MPAA and become President of Refugees International.